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Safety Citations at Mobil Startle Other Refineries

Times Staff Writer

While Mobil Oil has minimized the seriousness of the 100 federal safety citations lodged Monday against its Torrance refinery and 10 contractors there, officials at other South Bay oil refineries reacted with surprise and concern.

“Our people were shocked,” said Gene Munger, a spokesman for the Shell refinery in Carson. “Our people, they said, ‘Gee, that’s a big number.’ ”

At the Fletcher Oil refinery in Carson, Dick Erdman, manufacturing vice president, said the citations were “really surprising to me. I have never seen so many like this.”

More than the mere number, Munger said, Shell safety experts found the contents of the citations disturbing. “There were some pretty significant violations,” Munger said. “If we have got those around, we really are in trouble.”

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The citations, issued Monday by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, include 53 “serious” violations, which are defined as those “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.” OSHA is seeking $13,500 in fines from Mobil, which logged 18 of the serious violations, and another $16,540 from the contractors.

The South Bay has eight refineries, more than anywhere else in Southern California, and in that tight-knit community the 150 pages of violations would be a best-seller, were they not free for the copying.

Refinery officials at Chevron in El Segundo, Unocal in Wilmington and Arco, Shell, Texaco and Fletcher in Carson all say the OSHA citations will become “must” reading in their safety departments.

“We will certainly take a look at it,” said Chevron spokesman Rod Spackman.

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Said Arco’s refinery manager, Abe Johnson: “We are trying to get a copy.”

Erdman said the OSHA citations will undoubtedly come up at the Petroleum Club in Long Beach. “We meet the last Wednesday every month,” he said. “There is a free exchange of safety things.”

OSHA District Director Leslie Michael said the publicity may result in increased attention to safety programs.

“If we get 15 refineries to do that as a result of one inspection, that reduces the amount of manpower per case. That is great stuff,” he said.

“If they call us for (the) citations, we will give them to them.”

Michael added that on Thursday he met with Torrance officials, who are conducting their own safety audit of the Mobil refinery, and gave them a copy of the citations.

All this attention is more than a bit galling to Mobil.

“How many of these refineries have had OSHA inspectors in their basements for six weeks?” asked Mobil spokesman Jim Carbonetti in an interview Thursday.

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When the citations were released Monday, Carbonetti characterized many of them as “housekeeping-type items” and said Mobil intends to contest others that he said stemmed from differences in the interpretation of regulations. He added that the inspection results “confirm that Mobil’s refinery does not represent a danger to the neighborhoods adjacent to our facility.”

In the interview, however, Carbonetti conceded that some of the OSHA findings, such as the lack of bolts on various pieces of equipment, were examples of laxity about safety. He added that the oil company should not have needed an OSHA inspection to point them out.

The 6-week inspection that produced the citations was triggered by two unrelated incidents July 15, an explosion and a fire that killed a worker and seriously injured four others. The tragedy came after an 18-month series of explosions, fires, toxic releases and air-pollution incidents in which two other workers were killed, more than a dozen injured and hundreds of complaints received from residents.

The most troubling of the 18 “serious” violations attributed to Mobil involve an allegedly inadequate fire alarm system that could leave workers trapped by flames, steel piping in one installation that might give way at high temperatures and undersized relief valves that might blow in an emergency. The agency is seeking the maximum $1,000 fine on each of them.

Other serious violations allege that the oil company had exposed workers to falls from unsafe ladders.

Officials at other refineries said they will check for similar problems.

“From what I’ve seen, I think we are probably in pretty good shape,” Arco’s Johnson said. “If OSHA were to come in and do a wall-to-wall (inspection), they would find some violations, but I would be surprised if they find any significant violations.”

Shell’s Munger said: “We intend to study them and see what could possibly be applicable to us. Obviously, it is of significant interest because they did get citations and we don’t care to have any.”

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Fletcher’s Erdman said: “If there is anything that might apply to our shop, we would want to make ours as safe as we can.”

Chevron’s Spackman said: “I’m sure that our people are interested in what goes on over there to make sure we don’t have similar problems.”

The federal safety inspection was one of several ongoing examinations of conditions at Mobil.

In addition to Torrance’s safety assessment at the refinery, the Torrance Fire Department has ordered Mobil to prepare a risk management and prevention program, which is expected in March.

In the aftermath of an explosion and release of 100 pounds of highly toxic hydrofluoric acid last November, the South Coast Air Quality Management District also created a special task force. No problems resulted from the release of the acid, which is used to boost octane in gasoline.

The task force, which is considering whether to eliminate the use of the acid at Mobil and three other refineries, is about halfway through its work and expects to make recommendations next year.

In addition to the investigations, the explosion last November remains the subject of litigation between OSHA and Mobil.

OSHA cited Mobil for five “serious” safety violations related to the accident and sought the maximum $5,000 fine. Mobil accepted four of the five citations, including charges that it failed to have adequate firefighting equipment on hand, that it failed to protect employees from toxic substances, that its alarms and controllers malfunctioned and that employees were exposed to a ruptured potassium hydroxide tank. The company paid $4,000.

But the oil company is contesting the citation involving the size of the relief valves on the tank that exploded. The dispute remains pending before an administrative law judge.


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