A yearlong investigation of Mobil Oil Corp. by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office has ended with a decision not to prosecute the firm because evidence that might have established a criminal conspiracy to pollute the air was mishandled by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, it was learned Wednesday.
Mobil, the nation’s second-largest oil company, had been under investigation since early 1985 after the air quality district accused Mobil executives of allowing the company’s Torrance refinery to exceed particulate emission limits rather than repair a multimillion-dollar pollution control system.
The air quality district still intends to pursue its civil case against Mobil, in which it is seeking a fine of at least $365,000.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Diana Bell said the criminal case was dropped because there are “factual and legal problems which prevented us from filing.” Air district officials declined to comment publicly, saying they did not want to jeopardize the civil case against the oil company.
The key evidence against Mobil was said to be air samples of emissions from the refinery’s stacks taken by air quality district engineers.
Sample Problem Reported
Two sources familiar with the investigation and who asked to remain anonymous said that at the air quality district, the chain of custody of the air samples was broken, making it difficult to demonstrate in court that the samples were the ones actually taken from the Mobil refinery.
In addition, the sources said district engineers were unable to identify exactly which testing equipment was used during the inspections or to give assurances that the testing equipment had been calibrated to guarantee its accuracy.
“It’s entirely true. All those allegations (against the district) are correct,” an air quality district source told The Times. Another source added: “The record-keeping at the lab was a total mess.”
The emission test results also are a central part of a civil case in which the district is seeking a $1,000-a-day fine for each day that the company violated air quality standards.
At one point during the criminal investigation, district attorney investigators obtained a search warrant and confiscated seven boxes of company records from refinery offices. Mobil last week filed a petition in Los Angeles Municipal Court seeking the return of the documents on grounds that the case had been dropped.
The Mobil petition also asked that no copies of the documents be retained by the district attorney and none of the information contained in them ever be used in any future civil or criminal case against Mobil.
Contacted at Mobil headquarters in Fairfax, Va., company spokesman Tom Collins said Wednesday, “We’re just not in a position to characterize why they (the district attorney) did what they did under any circumstances.”
‘Cooperated With Authorities’
Collins added: “We’ve cooperated with authorities investigating this matter and have maintained throughout that our operations of the (refinery) were always conducted in a responsible and lawful manner. We are gratified that the district attorney, after undertaking a thorough review of our documents over an eight-month period, had declined to institute any criminal proceeding.”
As a result of a separate administrative proceeding, Mobil has repaired the defective pollution control equipment at a cost of $5 million.