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Gas Cloud That Could Kill 200,000 Nearly Released After Refinery Explosion, Says Feds

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A February explosion at the former ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance had the potential to release a deadly, toxic cloud that could have affected 200,000 people, says the federal government.

Thankfully, the explosion ultimately posed no threat to the public and only four workers were injured. However, the government watchdog in charge of investigating the incident says it was a "near miss," as a photo reveals an 80,000 pound piece of equipment flew almost 100 feet and nearly struck a tank of hydrofluoric acid.

"HF, in our view, and my view, is one of the most hazardous and deadly chemicals," Vanessa Sutherland, head of the federal government's Chemical Safety Board, told CBS News. "In worst-case scenarios, at deadly levels, it causes asphyxiation because once inhaled it causes respiratory problems that build up fluid and you ultimately drown."

"We were really, really lucky," she said. "It could have been much more catastrophic."

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According to documents ExxonMobil filed with the EPA, a worst-case scenario involving hydrofluoric acid would potentially harm or kill the 200,000 people that live within a three-mile radius of the refinery. However, ExxonMobil told CBS they "strongly disagree with any claims" that there was a "significant risk to the hydrofluoric acid unit" during the explosion.

The explosion remains under investigation by the Chemical Safety Board, but the agency says that ExxonMobil is fighting subpoenas for documents pertaining to the incident. "Generally in my experience as a regulator and enforcer, when somebody doesn't want you to have records is because they don't want you to see what's in it," said Sutherland.

"I think the technology that are employed in these refineries, for all the hazardous materials that are used, have proven to be very successful," said Tupper Hull, a spokesman with the industry group Western States Petroleum Association. In August there was small leak of hydrofluoric acid at the refinery, but the outside community was not harmed, says ExxonMobil.

On Wednesday, it was announced that ExxonMobil had sold the Torrance facility to PBF Energy. According to an executive with PBF, ExxonMobil will still be accountable for the February explosion, despite the sale. "They will still be responsible for the matters that relate to that incident," Jeffrey Dill told the Daily Breeze. Hydrofluoric acid will continue to be used at the refinery.