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OSHA Official Calls for Full Inspection of Mobil Facility

Times Staff Writer

The area director of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration called Wednesday for a top-to-bottom inspection of the Mobil Oil Corp. refinery in Torrance, where a worker was killed last week in two explosions and a fire at the facility.

Leslie W. Michael, head of OSHA’s Long Beach office, said he has asked the agency’s regional office for extra personnel and resources to inspect the refinery, where two explosions claimed one life and seriously injured four other workers Friday. It was the second death of a refinery worker there in four months.

“You can’t do a comprehensive system safety analysis of that facility without having our best experts nationally to assist us in that job,” Michael said.

The sprawling Mobil refinery last November was the scene of a massive explosion, which shattered windows in surrounding homes and businesses and sparked a fire that burned for two days.

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Final approval of the full-scale inspection will have to come from OSHA’s regional office in San Francisco. Tom Marple, acting deputy regional administrator, would say only that, “We are very concerned about the number of incidents at Mobil and we are considering what agency action might be necessary to reduce them.”

Last month, Mobil paid $4,000 in fines after being cited by OSHA for “serious violations” of federal safety regulations in connection with the Nov. 24 explosion.

OSHA defines a serious violation as one “where there is a substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result, and where the employer knew, or could have known, of the hazard.” Mobil was assessed the maximum $1,000 fine for each violation.

Mobil did not challenge four of the five citations issued by the federal job safety agency, including failure to have sufficient firefighting equipment on hand to control the fire and failure to protect an employee from toxic gases and liquids.

Accepts OSHA Citation

The company also accepted OSHA’s citation for exposing employees to a ruptured potassium hydroxide tank, which released “flammable, caustic and corrosive materials,” and for having malfunctioning alarms and controls on the refinery unit that exploded.

The explosion, which rocked a wide area, was caused by an excess of lethal hydrofluoric acid used in a refinery unit as a catalyst in the production of unleaded gasoline.

The citation that the oil company is contesting involves the cause of the explosion, and therefore responsibility for the accident. OSHA alleges that safety relief valves on the tank that exploded were not properly adjusted to take into account the potential reaction between hydrofluoric acid and potassium hydroxide.

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Mobil blames the incident on faulty instrumentation.

The refinery’s manager, Wyman D. Robb, said OSHA officials discussed with him as early as January the possibility of a complete inspection of the facility.

“We’ve known for some time that was one option they were considering,” he said. “If they felt that is necessary as part of their investigation, we would certainly be willing to cooperate with them on that.”

Robb defended the safety of the refinery, which has come under increasing scrutiny from local, regional, state and federal officials since last November’s blast.

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“I continue to believe we are operating a very safe refinery by industry standards and we have very safe work practices here,” Robb said.

He said “there were problems” with instrumentation that had just been installed during general maintenance and refurbishing of the refinery unit, contributing to the explosion.

Mobil was re-starting the unit when the explosion occurred, OSHA said.

OSHA said that alarms and controls on the refinery unit “were malfunctioning, thereby not apprising operators of the actual conditions or providing adequate warning.”

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The citation says that Mobil needs to provide better supervision and monitoring during start-up and operation of refinery units.

No cause has been determined in Friday’s explosions, said OSHA and Torrance Fire Department investigators.

In the morning blast, a welder’s torch is believed to have ignited flammable vapors in a water treatment area. Eight workers for an outside contractor were injured in the resulting flash fire. Two of them are still hospitalized in good condition.

Later in the day, Winston Alexander Jones, 30, of Harbor City was killed and two other employees of an outside contractor were seriously injured when a tank being used to process sludge from the bottom of a nearby storage tank exploded.

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One of them, David Moustafi, 30, of Long Beach, remains in critical condition at Torrance Memorial Hospital Medical Center with burns over 75% of his body. The second worker has been released.

Fire investigators said they will interview Moustafi as soon as possible in an effort to determine what led to the blast.

The refinery’s recent problems also have drawn the attention of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which has assembled a business-government task force to consider phasing out use of hydrofluoric acid at Los Angeles area refineries.

The acid, which turns into hydrogen fluoride gas in the atmosphere, could pose “an extreme and immediate health hazard to exposed citizens” if released in sufficient quantities, according to the AQMD.

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Although 100 pounds of hydrofluoric acid was released in the November explosion, none escaped from the refinery grounds, said Tom Gregory, Mobil’s manager of safety and training.

The city of Torrance hired an outside consultant this week to conduct an $88,000 industrial safety audit of the Mobil refinery, which will be paid for by Mobil.


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