Mobil Oil Corp. said Tuesday that it is cutting back gasoline production at its Torrance refinery 40% in order to repair a major anti-pollution system believed responsible for allowing 1.3 million pounds of health-threatening pollutants to escape into the atmosphere over the last year.
Mobil said the work, which is expected to take about three weeks, will cost $1 million in repairs and lost profits. None of the refinery's 880 employees will be laid off.
The oil company's announcement upstaged the South Coast Air Quality Management District staff, which had scheduled a hearing for today to seek an order that would shut down the polluting equipment, known as a fluid catalytic cracking unit.
The district said last week that shutting the unit down would effectively close the plant. That contention was disputed by Mobil officials on Tuesday, and district officials later conceded that the unit accounts for only part of the refinery's production.
In announcing the repair work, Mobil attorney Philip K. Verleger argued that the company's action strips the district of any jurisdiction to issue an abatement order because Mobil is no longer violating air quality rules.
Jim Birakos, the district's assistant executive officer, said Mobil's decision to make the repairs represents a victory for the agency. He added, however, that the district's staff will still ask the hearing board to prohibit Mobil from restarting the cracking unit until it can prove that its repairs are effective in keeping emissions within legal bounds.
At issue is the effectiveness of one of the key systems that controls pollutants produced by the cracking unit.
That system is known as an electrostatic precipitator. When it is operating, the precipitator electrically charges microscopic pollutants, called particulates, that are then attracted like magnets to metal collector plates inside the precipitator before they can escape into the atmosphere through refinery smokestacks.
The particulates originate in the cracking unit, which "cracks" or breaks down large hydrocarbon molecules in crude oil into a mixture of smaller molecules that can be separated by distillation into gasoline and other products. Mobil's cracking unit processes 60,000 barrels of crude each day, or about 40% of the refinery's gasoline production.
Thus, it is necessary to shut down the entire cracking unit in order to effectively make repairs to the precipitator.
The district's decision to seek a shutdown of the cracking unit came after it completed analyzing data going back to December, 1983, which showed that Mobil was emitting between seven and nine times the amount of particulates that are legally permitted.
District officials said it had taken more than a year to reach that decision because of faulty work at the district's laboratory that threw the results of the 1983 air samples into question. The testing was repeated last August and November, and the results confirmed the high level of pollutants.
The district also charged that Mobil knew there was a problem with the precipitator and withheld the information, a violation of state law. The district has filed a suit in Los Angeles Superior Court seeking unspecified financial penalties against the refinery for unauthorized emissions.
The district contends that the particulates are composed of silica, alumina, lead, nickel and chromium, which is a carcinogen. Such elements can bypass the human body's defenses and lodge deep in the lungs and cause respiratory problems.