The heart of an industrial giant still beats incongruously in Torrance, a city whose body has been taken over by homes, retail stores and high-tech businesses.
If anyone in Torrance had forgotten that, a reminder came Tuesday evening when Mobil Oil Corp.'s refinery exploded in flames, injuring two workers and shattering windows in nearby houses. Investigators said Thursday that they still have not determined the cause of the explosion.
Industrial mishaps were once more common in a town that prided itself on being "The Modern Industrial City." But three years ago it gave itself a new name: "The Balanced City: Industrial, Residential, Commercial."
That balance has shifted dramatically in recent years in favor of residential and commercial developments, leaving Mobil's 730-acre refinery on 190th Street the only substantial smokestack plant remaining in a town once dominated by steel and oil companies.
When the refinery exploded, it did so amid housing tracts that now flank it on the north and south. The advance of homes and "clean" businesses--such as the Del Amo Fashion Center and the U.S. headquarters for both Honda and Toyota--has made Mobil an increasing target for public complaints and government regulation.
"It's a remnant from the past and the way Torrance was originally developed," Mayor Katy Geissert said. "Some aspects of the operation will continue to make it an incompatible use. Whether that's Mobil's fault or the city's fault is hard to say.
"The refinery is there and the city has changed around it."
Mobil officials said they have no intention of leaving and are making substantial investments to assure that they can meet increasingly stringent environmental standards.
And city officials point to the positive side of Mobil's presence. About 800 people are regularly employed at the plant, not including construction crews that are making substantial improvements there. The company is probably the biggest tax generator in the city, according to Assistant Finance Director Dick Rankin, with annual payments totaling about $3 million. And landscaping along 190th Street and Crenshaw Boulevard has helped to improve the street-level aesthetics of the plant, Geissert said.
Built in 1929, the refinery produces about 70,000 barrels of fuel a day. Crude oil from the San Joaquin Valley and the Los Angeles Harbor area flows through two main pipelines to Torrance, where it is processed into gasoline, diesel fuel and aviation fuel.
The fire Tuesday was at least the sixth incident at the plant in the last decade to leave its mark on the surrounding community. Two workers and a passer-by were killed in a fire at the plant in December, 1979, and the windows of neighboring homes were shattered three months later in another refinery explosion.
Other mishaps have closed roads, showered cars in oil and covered houses with soot.
The refinery has been fined a total of $39,550 for 39 air-quality violations in the last 35 months, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Violations have ranged from leaky valves to faults in the plant's vapor recovery system, AQMD spokesman Ron Ketcham said.
Odors from the plant have led to public-nuisance complaints from the agency six times since January, 1986. The most recent citation was issued Nov. 11.
Mobil also has been scrutinized for leaking refined fuels into the earth. Even as the flames soared more than 200 feet from the refinery Tuesday night, the City Council was meeting in executive session to discuss suing Mobil for underground contamination in the city's Industrial Redevelopment Project area. No action was taken.
Mobil officials have denied that they are responsible for polluting the earth in the redevelopment zone, roughly a mile southeast of the refinery.
The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board is investigating. The state board ordered 1 1/2 years ago that 18 refineries investigate the possibility of groundwater contamination, according to Dennis Dasker, a supervising engineer with the agency. Mobil found fuel in several wells on its property and has been ordered to bore more holes to see if the contamination has spread off the refinery grounds, Dasker said.
'No Immediate Impact'
The pollution discovered so far has "no immediate impact on water quality or health," Dasker said, because it has not reached deep underground aquifers that are a source of drinking water.
Still another source of consternation for local residents has been noise. Normal sounds emanating from the plant have increased in the last year as construction crews work on a $200-million project to reduce emissions of sulfur oxide into the atmosphere.
Analyst John Karcic of Torrance's Environmental Quality Division said his office gets about two complaints a month for excessive noise and said the problem is not considered significant for a company of Mobil's size.
Some neighbors said they have given up on fighting for improvements.