As pressure builds locally for tighter controls on its Torrance refinery, Mobil Oil is looking to state legislators in Sacramento for help.
Mobil has stepped up its lobbying efforts at the state Capitol in the three months since an initiative campaign was launched in Torrance to force an end to the use of acutely toxic hydrofluoric acid at the refinery.
An excess of the lethal chemical in a refinery unit that produces unleaded gasoline caused a thunderous explosion and two-day fire at the sprawling refinery in November, 1987.
Although the release of a small amount of the chemical caused no injuries, the explosion focused attention on the potential danger to the community posed by its use. In sufficient quantities, hydrofluoric acid forms a ground-hugging cloud that can be deadly to all exposed to it.
Since the explosion, Mobil has nearly tripled its annual political contributions to state legislators, according to reports filed with the secretary of state.
In recent meetings with state lawmakers and legislative aides, Mobil lobbyists and officials have expressed concern that the Torrance initiative could threaten their refinery operations in the city.
“What we are really trying to do is protect our investment here,” Mobil refinery manager Wyman D. Robb said in an interview.
A legislative aide who met with Mobil lobbyists said: “These people seem to be legitimately frightened that their major Southern California refinery could be shut down. . . . Their motives are to save their facility.”
The Torrance refinery, one of the largest in the state, supplies 12% of Southern California’s gasoline. It uses hydrofluoric acid to boost the octane of gasoline, and Mobil has estimated that it would cost $100 million to switch to sulfuric acid, the catalyst used by most other major refineries.
Although Mobil has yet to seek legislation to preempt the city of Torrance from regulating hydrofluoric acid, lawmakers, legislative aides and Mobil representatives said that is being considered.
“We’ve talked to them about various legislative ideas,” Robb said. “There are a lot of options that we’ve discussed.” He said that preempting the initiative is “something we might want to explore further with them.”
Mobil is concerned that local regulation of toxic chemicals such as hydrofluoric acid is inconsistent with state controls, Robb said. “When cities get into this, that takes away some of the conformity and consistency that probably should be in place for the whole state,” he said.
The local initiative, sponsored by Torrance Councilman Dan Walker, would severely limit the storage of hydrofluoric acid at Mobil and any industrial site in the city, effectively forcing the refinery to abandon use of the chemical.
No Risk to Public
A Mobil-financed study released last week said use of the acid poses almost no risk to the public. Consultants who prepared the report estimated that the risk posed by continued use of the chemical at the Torrance refinery is 1.21 fatalities per 100 years.
Walker disputes that conclusion, and the City Council this week voted unanimously to hire its own consultant to analyze the Mobil consultants’ work.
“There is only one sure way to prevent a catastrophe and that’s to eliminate the threat,” Walker said. “The only way to eliminate the threat is to eliminate the storage of significant quantities” of hydrofluoric acid.
Walker said he soon will begin gathering signatures on the initiative, and he predicted that “the people of this community are going to tell Mobil Oil that there are going to be some changes made.”
Former Torrance City Atty. Stanley E. Remelmeyer, in a report to the City Council, said there is no state or federal legislation that preempts Torrance from regulating hydrofluoric acid, although the Legislature or Congress could pass such a bill.
“One would expect that, if cities and counties start passing ordinances concerning hydrofluoric acid, then the oil companies would go to the Legislature to get it preempted,” Remelmeyer said.
Robb said he would not “go public” with Mobil’s strategy for opposing the Torrance initiative. But interviews with lawmakers and legislative aides indicate that preemptive legislation is likely to be a part of that strategy.
Assemblyman Gerald N. Felando (R-San Pedro) said Mobil representatives discussed their concerns about the initiative, but did not ask him to author preemptive legislation.
“I don’t believe they would find a legislator that would do that,” said Felando, whose district includes the refinery. “Mobil Oil needs to get in there and clean up their own act. If they had been paying more attention to their plant and safety, they wouldn’t be in the predicament they are in.”
The November, 1987, blast was one of a series of explosions, fires and accidents that claimed three lives and caused a dozen serious injuries at the refinery in the last two years. The latest accident occurred Tuesday, when two Mobil maintenance workers were seriously burned and a third suffered minor injuries when hot oil and steam shot from a pipe they were working on.
Felando said the oil company “ought to be doing something to alleviate (public) concerns, so people aren’t living in fear.”
Mobil also has met in the past several months with other South Bay legislators, including Sens. Robert G. Beverly (R-Manhattan Beach) and Ralph C. Dills (D-Gardena), and Assemblymen Dave Elder (D-San Pedro) and Richard E. Floyd (D-Carson).
Beverly, whose district includes the refinery, said he would not be inclined to carry preemptive legislation. “On local land use matters,” he said, “I don’t think that Sacramento ought to get involved.”
Floyd is also dubious. “We are not giving them a way out,” he said.
The leaders of the Legislature’s two committees on toxic substances, Assemblywoman Sally Tanner (D-Baldwin Park) and Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), said they were contacted by Mobil lobbyists in recent weeks.
Tanner, who chairs the Assembly Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee, said Mobil representatives mentioned the initiative. “They were saying they had concerns,” she said, but they did not request legislation.
Torres said his staff has met with Mobil representatives.
Mobil lobbyist Fred Taugher did not return telephone calls from The Times.
Robb, who said he has made one trip to Sacramento to meet with legislators, said: “There is nothing mysterious or secret about what we did up there. We talked to our legislators just like any other business or industry.”
But legislative aides, who deal regularly with industry lobbyists, said Mobil lately has been trying to raise its profile in Sacramento.
“Unlike Chevron or Arco, Mobil has never had a strong presence up here,” a legislative consultant said.
The increased lobbying comes in spite of the fact that Mobil has been reducing its presence on the West Coast. With the sale last year of a refinery in Ferndale, Wash., the Torrance facility is Mobil’s only refinery on the West Coast. The company also has sold its Northern California service stations.
Campaign contribution reports show Mobil has nearly tripled its political contributions since 1986.
That year, Mobil’s California political action committee gave $24,450 to legislative candidates. The only contributions to South Bay legislators included a $400 check to Felando and $800 to Dills.
Mobil also spent $190,000 in an unsuccessful effort to prevent passage of Proposition 65, the toxics-control initiative on the November, 1986, ballot.
In 1987, Mobil made a single $500 contribution until Dec. 23--less than a month after the Torrance explosion--when the company sent out $35,350 in checks to 43 incumbent legislators. Mobil gave $2,000 to Dills, $1,000 to Beverly, and $500 each to Elder, Floyd and Felando in 1987.
Last year, Mobil gave $71,000 to legislative candidates and two Los Angeles city officials. Mobil sent $1,000 checks to Dills, Beverly, Elder and Felando, and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. Checks for $500 were sent to Floyd, Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) and Los Angeles City Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores.
Elder returned the money four months later. “Sending the money back should have told them that, at least in this legislator’s mind, accepting a contribution would not be appropriate and that in my view they are not good corporate citizens,” Elder said.
Asked why Mobil dramatically increased its political contributions, Robb said: “Our PAC has recognized the importance of California. We probably are behind other industries and oil companies.”