Smog District Staff Acts to Delay Mobil Refinery Unit Reopening

Times Staff Writer

Charging that Mobil Oil Corp. chose to "line the pockets" of stockholders rather than comply with clean air rules, the South Coast Air Quality Management District staff moved Tuesday to prevent the immediate reopening of a major portion of Mobil's Torrance refinery.

Mobil closed its fluid catalytic cracking unit at the refinery, which accounts for 40% of the refinery's gasoline production, on Feb. 6 after the air quality district learned that a major system to control the cracking unit's air pollution had failed.

Mobil said Tuesday that it expects temporary repairs to be completed within a few days. At issue is whether Mobil will be permitted to restart the unit and under what conditions. The district staff is expected to ask that the repaired unit be tested before resuming operations to prove that it is meeting air quality rules.

Hearing to Resume

The hearing by the district's board is scheduled to resume on Thursday and take at least several days to complete.

William Freedman, attorney for the district, charged Tuesday that Mobil had been aware of the faulty equipment for at least seven months and perhaps more than a year but chose to continue gasoline production rather than shut down the unit for repairs.

"Mobil intentionally violated the law for its own economic gain. No action was taken to protect the health and welfare of the average citizen who was forced to inhale air contaminants so that Mobil could line the pockets of its shareholders," Freedman told the board.

Mobil attorney Jack E. Fudge called Freedman's remarks "inflammatory" and said that Mobil would show that even with the faulty air pollution control system--called an electrostatic precipitator--there were two backup systems that should have permitted the oil company to comply with air quality emission standards.

Recent Checks Made

Recent inspections of the backup units, Fudge said, found them both in good condition.

In asking the board to issue an abatement order that would place restrictions on Mobil in restarting its cracking unit, Freedman said, "You must set an example in this case. Mobil is large and resourceful. It knew of the laws in question. Still it intentionally violated the law for its own economic gain."

"If you do not take strong action in this case where the facts scream out with foul play, unethical conduct and massive emissions--what incentive or deterrent effect is left to motivate sources of pollution to comply with the law?" Freedman asked.

Ronald Wilkniss, a Mobil environmental engineer, told the board, for the first time, that Mobil had conducted four air-monitoring tests that he had not mentioned during his testimony last month when Mobil sought permission to continue operations while it repaired the precipitator. Permission was denied.

At that time, the district was seeking information in an attempt to show that Mobil was aware of problems with the electrostatic precipitator but failed to alert air quality officials or repair the equipment.

As a result, district officials have argued, Mobil spewed 1.3 million pounds of particulates into the air during a 13-month period. Mobil officials said the excess emissions were less than half that.

Violating Standards

A Mobil spokesman said that two of the previously undisclosed tests had taken place before the hearings in January and both showed Mobil was violating emission standards for particulates.

Spokesman Thomas Collins said he did not know why Wilkniss failed to mention those tests. However, Collins said, Mobil will challenge the accuracy of the tests.

Particulates are microscopic airborne particles that can bypass the human body's defenses and lodge deep in the lungs, causing respiratory illnesses.

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