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Cause of California refinery blast still unclear; no timetable for gas production to resume

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TORRANCE, California — It's still unclear what caused an explosion at an oil refinery outside Los Angeles, and there's no timetable for when gas production will resume, the refinery manager said Friday.

The Exxon Mobil refinery is currently not processing gasoline since Wednesday's blast, "but we have stocks of gasoline in the refinery that we are supplying," manager Brian Ablett said.

Ablett, who made his remarks to reporters before a town hall meeting for concerned residents, declined to say how much refined gas was available as backup and whether the refinery was releasing the supplies into the marketplace.

The refinery in Torrance produces about 8 percent of California's gas. Officials have not fully assessed the damage to determine when operations will resume.

A section of the refinery critical to the production of California-grade gasoline was damaged in the blast. State safety inspectors ordered the area — called the fluid catalytic cracker unit — shut down until the refinery can prove it's once more safe, according to the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal-OHSA.

The area where the accident occurred had been shut down since Monday — two days before the explosion — because of a problem with another piece of machinery called the flue gas expander.

As refinery officials were trying to figure out how to repair that problem, another nearby piece of machinery — a 12-story metal tower called an electrostatic precipitator — exploded, causing "extensive damage," Ablett said.

"It's too early to say what happened," he said. "We're not ruling anything out, and we're not ruling anything in. We will get to the bottom of this. We need to get to the bottom of this, and we will."

PHOTO: Damage caused by an explosion at the ExxonMobile refinery in Torrance, Calif. is visible on Wednesday, Feb.18, 2015, after an explosion in a gasoline processing unit. Two workers suffered minor injuries and a small fire at the unit was quickly put out. The incident triggered a safety flare to burn off flammable substances. The facility about 20 miles south of downtown Los Angeles covers 750 acres, employs over a thousand people, and processes an average of 155,000 barrels of crude oil per day, according to the company. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Damage caused by an explosion at the ExxonMobile refinery in Torrance, Calif. is visible on Wednesday, Feb.18, 2015, after an explosion in a gasoline processing unit. Two workers suffered minor injuries and a small fire at the unit was quickly put out. The incident triggered a safety flare to burn off flammable substances. The facility about 20 miles south of downtown Los Angeles covers 750 acres, employs over a thousand people, and processes an average of 155,000 barrels of crude oil per day, according to the company. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

Four contractors suffered minor injuries as they fled. The explosion shook the neighborhood and rained white ash on nearby lawns.

The refinery has received 200 to 300 calls from community members who had a fine white particulate fall on their lawns houses and cars, Ablett said.

ExxonMobil said the ash was not toxic, but it could cause skin irritation on contact. The company anticipates payouts for cleaning its neighbors' property, but it did not have a dollar figure.

Carol Posner, 60, has lived in a house directly across from the refinery for 20 years. She said she was just getting out of the shower when the blast shook her house. She ran to the window and saw a plume of smoke rising into the air and later saw large flares burning off emissions. Residents were concerned that the refinery had not activated its sirens to warn residents, Posner said.

"I wish they would be more forthcoming to those in the neighborhood," she said. "Nobody's talking to the people who live right there."

Cal-OHSA is investigating the accident and could take six months to determine what happened.

The refinery about 20 miles south of downtown Los Angeles processes an average of 155,000 barrels of crude oil a day. It produces 1.8 billion gallons of gasoline a year, which accounts for about 8.3 percent of the state's total refining capacity.

Gas prices in California had been inching up even before the blast, which came at a time when refineries in the state are shifting production to summer-grade gasoline.

Analysts expected consumers in California to pay 15 to 20 cents more per gallon — to reach prices of $3 and more per gallon — in the coming weeks. But they anticipated no impact outside the state.

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