State Says Mobil Is Slow in Cleaning Up Underground Water

Times Staff Writer

Mobil's program to clean up massive underground water contamination flowing from its Torrance refinery is falling behind schedule, according to state officials.

A Mobil spokesman acknowledged the problem but said the company is doing its best.

Officials in the state agency that ordered the cleanup, while grumbling about the pace of the work, said they have not decided whether to seek fines, which could be as high as $5,000 a day.

"Progress has been slower than we would like, but acceptable," said Jim Ross, senior ground water engineer for the California Regional Water Quality Control Board. He said the board will consider the Mobil situation March 27.

March 1 Deadline

Last year, the agency gave Mobil a March 1 deadline to make "significant progress" in cleaning up the ground water contamination, one of the largest near oil refineries in Los Angeles County.

The order came after tests found an underground plume of gasoline and other petroleum products some 80 to 100 feet down, as far as 1,200 feet beyond the Mobil refinery property, officials said. The contamination, apparently from leaking tanks or pipes, reached south into a Torrance redevelopment area where American Honda plans its headquarters. The contamination has not reached the depths that supply drinking water.

In a Feb. 27 report reviewing the progress of the cleanup, water quality officials estimated that Mobil had removed only 5% to 10% of the contamination. That fails to meet the requirements of the order, the officials said, although the order did not give a specific percentage.

Mobil spokesman Jim Carbonetti said the oil company had been working closely with water quality officials but acknowledged that the cleanup is behind schedule.

"We have got to change that and we are changing that," Carbonetti said. "We are disappointed with the . . . product amount recovered on the site but this does not reflect any lack of effort on our part."

Delays in Tests

In addition to the slow pace of pumping out gasoline from under refinery property, Ross said that water quality officials also are chafing at delays in tests to determine the shape and flow of the underground plume of contaminated water outside the refinery.

No recovery program is under way for areas outside the refinery, in part because Mobil is not convinced that its refinery is the source of the contamination outside its property.

The tests--originally scheduled for December but now set for March 14--will involve eight wells off the refinery. The tests will measure the levels of contamination as well as the direction of subterranean water flow. Ross labeled it the largest regional water test that local water quality officials have ever staged.

In addition to enabling engineers to design a pumping program, they may prove to Mobil's satisfaction that it is the source of the contamination.

"We expect to fully define the off-site plume and pin it to a responsible party," Ross said. "Mobil, while cooperating in the cleanup program, has yet to admit its legal responsibility for the plume."

Ross said that problems in gaining access to private property to drill wells--not Mobil reluctance--had caused the delays.

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