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Odor Inquiry Focuses on Mobil Plant

September 04, 1988|JEFFREY L. RABIN | Times Staff Writer

South Coast Air Quality Management District inspectors believe the Mobil Oil Corp. refinery in Torrance is the probable source of odors that prompted 75 complaints from as far away as Long Beach and forced closure of almost a mile of Crenshaw Boulevard for 3 1/2 hours Thursday night.

Mobil spokesman James A. Carbonetti said oil company officials are working with inspectors from the air quality management district. Mobil officials assume that the noxious gas "came from our refinery," but as of midday Saturday did not know what the gas was or where it came from. "We are still looking," Carbonetti said.

After a motorist driving through the area complained to Torrance police that the odor made her ill, police closed a stretch of busy Crenshaw Boulevard between 190th Street and Del Amo Boulevard next to the sprawling refinery from 7 to 10:30 p.m. Thursday.

The motorist, Hermosa Beach real estate agent Melanie Demont, 35, said Saturday that she was driving south on Crenshaw just past 190th Street at 5:45 p.m. Thursday when she smelled something "so obnoxious . . . worse than a rotten egg . . . that made me not able to take another breath. . . .

"I could see stuff raining on my car that I thought was causing it. I was terrified and did not know what to do. . . . My face and my arms were burning, my head was aching."

Drove to Police Headquarters

Demont said she drove to Torrance police headquarters "because I thought they should close the street."

City paramedics, who were called to examine her, advised her to see a doctor. She drove herself to Little Company of Mary Hospital, where she said her throat was swabbed and her skin washed with medicated soap. Still feeling nauseated, she said she rested at the hospital until she drove home at 10 p.m.

"I've been having headaches for the last two days and my throat is still a little scratchy," Demont said Saturday.

Torrance fire Battalion Chief Jack McCarter said Saturday that he also experienced an "unpleasant, irritating odor" when he inspected the stretch of Crenshaw next to the refinery at about 6:45 p.m. Thursday. "My skin itched in the face area and my eyes burned somewhat," he said.

Although the district received 50 odor complaints Thursday night and 25 additional complaints Friday morning, tests conducted by Mobil did not detect any odor.

District spokesman Bill Kelly said the investigation was focused on a coker unit that handles residue from the petroleum refining process. "It is a question of finding out where they are coming from," he said.

Lacking a definitive cause for the smell, air quality officials did not cite the refinery for violating air quality laws. The matter will be reviewed again Tuesday, however, after inspectors complete their investigation and report to district officials. No other industrial source besides Mobil is being examined as a likely source of the odor, Kelly said.

The Mobil refinery has been cited 50 times in the last four years for violation of air quality laws and has paid $60,700 in fines, according to district records.

Six criminal misdemeanor charges for alleged violation of air quality laws were filed against Mobil in South Bay Municipal Court last week, stemming from six incidents at the refinery between May 6 and June 6.

Before filing the charges, Torrance City Prosecutor J. D. Lord said odors from the refinery are "creating a substantial problem" for nearby residents.

The alleged violations involved disconnected vapor recovery equipment, excessive smoke and sulfur-dioxide emissions, and release of foul-smelling hydrogen sulfide gas from a storage tank that sparked more than 300 complaints.

On another pollution issue involving Mobil, Torrance officials last Tuesday said the Mobil officials are dragging their feet in cleaning up a plume of gasoline polluting ground water in the city's nearby redevelopment project area. The city has asked the state Regional Water Quality Control Board to force the refinery to move more quickly.

The redevelopment agency's outside attorney, Colin Lennard, complained in an Aug. 30 letter to the water board's executive officer that recent developments have caused the city "concern that Mobil will not properly and expeditiously address the off-site ground water contamination" without further action by the board.

In March, the water board ordered Mobil to make progress by next March on cleaning up the ground water contamination or face fines of up to $5,000 a day. Board engineers and the Torrance Redevelopment Agency believe that Mobil is the source of contamination in a shallow ground water aquifer as much as 1,200 feet outside the refinery grounds.

The American Honda Motor Co. wants to build its North American headquarters on redevelopment agency property above the contaminated ground water, but the project has been slowed because of the pollution problem.

Torrance City Manager LeRoy Jackson has demanded that Mobil reimburse the city for expenses associated with ground water monitoring, but in an Aug. 22 letter, Mobil counsel Wayne E. Mullins rebuffed the city's request for reimbursement, calling it "improper." The costs of the monitoring were not available.

"I understand that significant ground water contamination problems may exist at Torrance Redevelopment Agency property," Mullins wrote. "However, no conclusive evidence has yet been developed to indicate that Mobil's actions have contributed to these problems, let alone that Mobil is the principal source of these problems."

Instead, Mobil suggested that previous industrial uses on the redevelopment agency property may be responsible.

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