Torrance city officials still do not have the answer to the question they posed eight months ago: Is the sprawling 750-acre Mobil Oil Corp. refinery, the city's largest private landowner and biggest taxpayer, also a good neighbor?
The question was first asked by the City Council last December, after a massive explosion and 2-day fire ripped through the refinery Thanksgiving week. The council told its staff to study whether the facility was being operated safely.
In March, after receiving two lengthy reports, council members decided that the city lacked the expertise to answer the question, and they began looking for a consultant.
On the last day of May, the council voted unanimously to hire an outside expert and approved the consulting firm's proposal for an in-depth examination of the refinery.
But for reasons that remain unclear, the consulting contract was not signed until last Thursday.
Since the council first talked about a safety study, two smaller explosions and fires July 15 claimed one life and injured 10 workers, four of them seriously. It was the second death of a contract worker at the Mobil facility this year.
The safety study, originally supposed to be finished before Sept. 1, is now slated to begin Aug. 1 and will not be completed before mid-October.
Torrance Mayor Katy Geissert said the city needs to get on with the work. "I am disappointed that we have not pursued this more aggressively," she said in an interview Friday. "I assure you that it will be now."
The mayor said last weekend that the study was delayed because Mobil had denied the consultant access to the refinery because officials from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration were still investigating the November explosion and fire.
However, she later learned that the city's study had not started because the $88,000 consulting contract had "bogged down" in the city attorney's office and the city's environmental division.
"It has been brought home to us very strongly that we need to be more aggressive in this role," Geissert said. "There needs to be a better tracking system so there aren't these time lags and delays."
Although Torrance will receive about $4 million in tax revenues from Mobil this year and the city balanced its budget by imposing a new $500,000 tax on the refinery, Geissert said the council is determined to find out if the facility is being operated safely. "Our primary responsibility is to public safety," she said.
Mobil Refinery Manager Wyman D. Robb defends the safety of the facility. "I continue to believe that we are operating a very safe refinery by industry standards, and we have very safe work practices here," Robb said Wednesday.
Robb's comments came in the wake of the separate accidents at refinery on the morning and afternoon of July 15.
In the first explosion and flash fire, eight workers for a contractor hired by Mobil were injured, two seriously. Fire investigators believe that a welding torch ignited flammable vapors in a water treatment area.
One Man Killed
Later that day, one man was killed and two others were seriously injured when a small holding tank used in the cleaning of a storage tank exploded. The cause of that blast is under investigation by Fire Department and federal investigators.
Torrance wants the consultant to assemble all information about the refinery, which processes crude oil into gasoline and other fuels.
William E. Backes, vice president of the consulting firm Gage-Babcock and Associates, said Friday that he would not prejudge the outcome of the study. "We've been hired to look at something and report on it and let the chips will fall where they may," he said.
The city has asked for a complete examination of the refinery's design and equipment, Mobil's safety and training procedures, its emergency response plans, and use, handling and storage of acutely hazardous chemicals.
The study will include recommendations on ways to improve the safety of refinery operations under normal conditions and adverse conditions, such as strikes, earthquakes and power outages. Mobil has agreed to reimburse the city for the cost of the study.
Risk Management Program
Under authority provided by a new state law on toxic substances, the city also has asked Mobil to prepare a risk management program for one of the most dangerous chemicals--hydrofluoric acid.
The acid forms lethal hydrogen fluoride gas if released into the air. The potential for a catastrophic accident from the chemical has led the South Coast Air Quality Management District to assemble a task force of industry and government officials to consider phasing out its use in Los Angeles-area refineries.
It was an excess of hydrofluoric acid in a refinery unit that produces gasoline that was the cause of the explosion and fire Nov. 24-25. An estimated 100 pounds of the acid was released in the explosion but none escaped the refinery grounds, according to Mobil.