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Mobil Blasts Study Critical of Refinery

Times Staff Writer

A Mobil Oil official on Wednesday blasted a safety study that blamed lax management for accidents at the oil company’s troubled Torrance refinery, calling the report a “sloppy job” that contains major errors.

The author of the study, which was released Saturday, conceded there might be “discrepancies” in the report but defended it as “an honest job.”

And at Torrance City Hall, where some council members had greeted the report as confirmation of their fears about the refinery, Mobil’s counterattack was received with skepticism.

It was Torrance officials who demanded the $88,000 consultant study after a series of accidents at the plant, beginning with a thunderous explosion and 2-day fire in November, 1987. Since then, in four separate accidents, one worker fell to his death, another was killed in an explosion, four workers were seriously burned and eight others were injured.

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Negligence Cited

Mobil agreed to pay for the inch-thick safety report, which was written by Gage-Babcock & Associates and the Mittelhauser Corp. It said evidence from Mobil and government agencies made it clear that negligence and unsafe procedures had caused accidents at the refinery.

The report’s main conclusion--that the company was lax in enforcing its safety rules--was based on a finding that few written disciplinary reports were drawn up for safety infractions. “Despite our repeated requests, Mobil could provide us with only four disciplinary action reports, three of which are dated April 10, 1979, or earlier.”

But Mobil refinery manager Wyman Robb told The Times on Wednesday that oil company officials never were asked to provide all disciplinary reports--only a few. “We gave them four examples,” he said.

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In fact, he said, 165 employees received punishment, including written reprimands, suspensions, demotions or firings, for safety violations between 1978 and 1988. An additional 82 were punished for poor work performance during that time, he said. Some management personnel were given written reprimands in the wake of the November, 1987, explosion and fire, he said.

“Certainly, that exhibits a record of having complied with our own policies and procedures,” Robb said. “To conclude that we are not following our policies and procedures because we only issued four disciplinary letters is . . . not correct. They didn’t have all the story.”

William E. Backes, Los Angeles manager for Gage-Babcock, said it would be “unprofessional” to comment on Mobil’s response to the report.

“These things should not be solved in the newspaper and they should not be solved in the public forum,” Backes said.

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He added, however: “We did an honest job as we see it. I don’t think anyone can do a 100% perfect job of getting all of the facts that may be there and in communicating to a 100% degree of effectiveness with everyone involved. I’m sure that in any study we might do . . . there might be discrepancies.”

Torrance Mayor Katy Geissert suggested that Mobil should have given more information to the consultant.

Comparisons Criticized

“Mobil Oil knew exactly what Gage-Babcock was hired to do. I can’t believe they wouldn’t open up their files to prove they were dealing with discipline. There is definitely something that doesn’t square.” In the interview, Robb also criticized Gage-Babcock for making what he termed inaccurately drawn comparisons of Mobil’s safety record to those of other refineries.

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In the first place, he said, the consultants used raw numbers of safety incidents, without computing rates per hours worked. Such computations show that Mobil has an average safety record compared to other refineries, he said.

In 1987, he said, when there were 39 incidents reported to the Torrance Fire Department, including fires, spills, vapor releases, industrial injuries, medical emergencies and odors, the refinery was undertaking a major construction project and had up to five times its normal work force on the site.

“There is no indication in the report that gives us credit for the number of people we had in here in that period,” Robb said.

Second, he said, when the consultants compared Mobil with refineries operated by Texaco, Unocal, Goldenwest and Champlin Petroleum Co. and found that Mobil had the worst or second worst safety record each year between 1983 and 1988, they failed to account for differing reporting standards for the various fire departments that serve those facilities.

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Robb said that the Torrance Fire Department has a stricter standard for reporting safety incidents that boosts the Mobil total.

In other areas of criticism, Robb said Gage-Babcock was wrong when it said that the refinery’s firefighting capability is inadequate.

He also said the consulting firm erred in saying that water pools found under propane tanks indicate that propane could form dangerously flammable pools there if a leak occurred. In fact, he said, the propane would vaporize, he said.

And a suggestion that flammable vapors be monitored continuously during welding or other “hot work” is impractical and is not required at other refineries.

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