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Mobil, Torrance Alter Refinery-Safety Agreement : Safety: The firm appointed by a judge to monitor conditions at the work site has been replaced. Costs had exceeded the program's budget ceiling.


The company named by a judge to monitor safety at the Mobil Oil Corp. refinery in Torrance was replaced by another firm this fall amid budget problems.

Westinghouse Electric Corp., which served for three years as the refinery's first safety adviser, was replaced Sept. 30 in the most significant revision to date of a 1990 pact between Mobil and the city of Torrance. The change was discussed by the Torrance City Council behind closed doors and was not publicly announced because it was considered a matter of litigation.

That much-heralded pact between the city and Mobil grew out of a public nuisance lawsuit that Torrance brought against the company after a series of fires and other accidents at the sprawling 750-acre refinery. Just weeks before trial, Mobil agreed to the appointment of a court-supervised safety adviser, an independent consulting firm that was supposed to monitor the refinery for seven years and recommend changes to improve safety.

But a Westinghouse spokesman says the firm received instructions in April--from the court via Mobil--to "minimize rather dramatically" its work on the project. Legal documents indicate that program costs have soared well above the $1-million ceiling originally set for the safety adviser through 1997.

Now, the city and Mobil have agreed to replace Westinghouse with EQE Engineering International of Irvine, which is working on the project under a revamped budget.

Although Mobil has paid the safety adviser's bills, the city has spent $1.6 million on outside legal help and experts' fees for its lawsuit against Mobil and the ongoing costs of seeing that the agreement is carried out.

Despite the cost to the city and Westinghouse's departure, Torrance officials say they have full confidence in the monitoring project and believe it already has created a safer refinery.

"I really think it is a landmark activity," said Torrance City Atty. John Fellows. "I think we'll all stand back and be very proud of it."

City and Mobil officials say there is no evidence that an Oct 19 explosion and fire at the Mobil refinery has any relationship to changes in the safety adviser program. The cause of the accident, which injured 28 workers, remains under investigation.

EQE is conducting its own investigation, and its project manager, Steven T. Maher, said last month that he went to the refinery after the explosion and witnessed the emergency response firsthand.

Even before recent budget problems, the project was not proceeding in the way the city thought it would when it signed a consent decree with Mobil four years ago.

During the 1991 search for a safety adviser, for instance, Torrance officials had lobbied against Westinghouse in favor of another firm, SRI International, which had estimated the project's first stage alone would cost up to $1 million.

But retired Superior Court Judge Harry V. Peetris, who is overseeing the project, instead chose Westinghouse, Mobil's nominee. He also set a $1 million spending limit for the entire program, over vehement objections from the city.

Despite their early unhappiness, several city officials said they are pleased with the program's accomplishments, and they specifically praised Maher, who initially served as project manager for the Mobil project when he worked for Westinghouse.

Maher left Westinghouse in March, 1993, for a job at EQE, then a subcontractor on the Mobil project. He remained involved in the project "in a support role and on an as-needed basis" but not in the "mainstream," Maher said in an interview last month.

The Sept. 30 agreement states that Westinghouse submitted bills for the project exceeding $1.35 million.

Westinghouse spokesman Vaughn Gilbert called the charges legitimate, saying they should have come as no surprise to the city or to Mobil. Westinghouse had informed them early on, he said, that additional work by its staff was needed to meet the parties' requests for a significant number of reports "to keep this from going back to the court."

Then, following an April, 1994, meeting between the city, Mobil and Judge Peetris, Westinghouse received instructions from the court, delivered by Mobil, advising it to reduce its activity, Gilbert said.

"We were told to minimize rather dramatically what we were doing there," he said, adding that no critical tasks were abandoned.

Attorneys for Torrance and Mobil said Monday they could not immediately confirm Westinghouse's account. Ernest Getto, an attorney representing Mobil, said that much of the project was complete by early this year, "so that the work remaining to be done by the safety adviser was a minority, a fraction."

In fact, refinery officials say they have made significant strides in improving safety at the refinery.

Bill Buckalew, refinery environmental health and safety manager, disagreed with the notion that the safety adviser effort was cut back. The fact that Mobil spent more than the $1 million cap, Buckalew said, "shows that maybe we did more than the consent decree asked for."

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