Judge Weighs Class Certification Over LA County Refinery Explosion

LOS ANGELES (CN) – An attorney for residents affected by a 2015 oil refinery explosion in LA County told a federal judge Monday that proceeding under a class action provides the best remedy for property owners.

A gasoline processing machine at an oil refinery in Torrance, a coastal city in southwest LA County, exploded on Feb. 18, 2015, sending chemical-laden ash and fumes towards homes surrounding the facility.

During the explosion, a piece of damaged machinery landed near a tank of toxic hydrofluoric acid, a substance which, if exposed to oxygen, could have had a deadly impact on the more than 300,000 residents in surrounding communities, according to a report by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

Residents near the Torrance Refinery – owned previously by Exxon-Mobil – alleged environmental negligence in a 2017 class action lawsuit, claiming the company knowingly operated the refinery under inadequate safety standards.

Substandard safety protocols and shoddy repair work created the conditions for the 2015 explosion, the complaint said, adding that new owners PBF Energy have only continued the negligent behavior, exposing residents to harmful chemicals.

Lead plaintiff Arnold Goldstein said he was walking outside and exposed to chemical ash during the explosion, leading to breathing problems and a later diagnosis of asthma.

U.S District Judge Dale Fischer denied class certification in April, writing in her order that residents failed to adequately state which claims they want certified for each subclass and what relief each subclass seeks.

Fischer held that plaintiffs failed to meet their numerosity, adequacy and commonality requirements for all subclasses.

In a hearing Monday on the plaintiffs’ renewed class certification motion, residents’ attorney Matthew Edling told Fischer that class certification would allow for proper analysis of which residents are affected by the plume, or concentration of hydrocarbons in the soil.

“There’s not much debate that there’s a plume,” Edling told Fischer. “We’re saying the plume is much larger and we need to find out who was impacted and how much.”

A subclass of residents whose soil may not be impacted but whose air was exposed to toxins would benefit from having defined “emission zones,” Edling said.

Michael Finnegan, an attorney for PBF Energy Company and Torrance Refining Company, told Fischer that he objects to the “soil subclass” representatives since some residents require passive remediation of contaminated soil while others seek more rigorous action.

That residents allege lost use of their property in their complaint creates a confusing paradigm since they define their class members as having elevated health risks, said Finnegan, an attorney with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman.

Finnegan argued that resolving property claims through individual lawsuits would be more suitable since the parties’ experts have submitted conflicting evidence regarding contamination levels in the area surrounding the refinery.

“The testing results are variable and inconsistent,” Finnegan said. “Testing must be done on a property-by-property basis.”

Fischer told both parties that the renewed motion for class certification is under submission but did not indicate when she would issue a ruling.

Exxon-Mobil is represented by Dawn Sestito with O’Melveny and Myers.

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