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Explosion Ignites Fire at Wilmington Oil Refinery

November 10, 1999|From A Times staff writer

An explosion at a Wilmington oil refinery sparked a huge fire Tuesday afternoon, sending flames hundreds of feet up and causing a brief shutdown of the Harbor Freeway.

Los Angeles firefighters and a fire brigade from the Tosco Corp. refinery quickly smothered the flames with massive quantities of water and fire-retardant foam. The blaze was extinguished in about an hour. No injuries were reported.

This is the second major fire this year at a California Tosco refinery. In February a fire killed four workers and critically injured a fifth at the firm's Martinez refinery near San Francisco.

In August, Cal/OSHA, the state's worker safety agency, said Tosco failed to correct hazards that resulted in the fatal fire and fined the oil company a record $810,750.

The Wilmington fire erupted about 3:45 p.m. in an "oil recovery" tank where small amounts of oil are removed from "refinery waste water," said Tosco spokesman Jeff Callender. Because the tank contained mostly water, the fire was in "the best place you could have one in a refinery," said Deputy Fire Chief Bob Neamy.

The cause of the fire, he said, is under investigation.

Because of the heavy smoke, a short stretch of the Harbor Freeway and several offramps were closed in both directions for about 15 minutes.

Harbor College, which is about a quarter-mile north of the refinery, canceled classes Tuesday night.

"People here at the college definitely heard the explosion," said spokesman Gary Wood. "The flames were shooting up 100, 200 feet into the air and billowing, along with this thick black smoke."

Wood said college officials "decided to close the school as a precaution. The Fire Department told us the smoke was not toxic. But we figured people probably wouldn't come to class anyway because of the thick smoke and traffic problems."

In March, Tosco Corp., the nation's fifth largest oil refiner, shut down its Martinez refinery for several months at the request of the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors.

In August, Cal/OSHA cited Tosco for 33 alleged violations of state workplace safety regulations. Sixteen were classified as "willful."

The Tosco fine was the largest ever assessed against a single employer by Cal/OSHA.

Tosco bought its refineries, 1,100 gasoline stations and the 76 brand name from Unocal Corp. in 1997.

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