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Safety Consultants Blame Refinery for Report’s Failings

Times Staff Writer

First, Gage-Babcock & Associates wrote a safety report critical of Mobil’s Torrance refinery and its management.

Mobil said the report was a “sloppy job” with glaring defects.

That was in January.

Now Gage-Babcock has fired back. In a 17-page response released this week, the consulting firm says that Mobil has only itself to blame for inaccuracies because it failed to provide key information or correct mistakes when it had the chance.

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Mobil spokesman Jim Carbonetti responded somewhat wearily to the consultants’ reply to Mobil’s criticism.

“Unfortunately, there was a communication problem between us,” he said.

The $88,000 Gage-Babcock report, released Dec. 31, blamed carelessness, failure to follow guidelines and lax management for what it termed an unacceptably high number of deaths, explosions, fires and accidents at the refinery in the last 10 years.

Torrance council members had ordered the safety audit of the refinery, which Mobil paid for, after a thunderous explosion and two-day fire in November, 1987. The explosion released 100 pounds of acutely hazardous hydrofluoric acid, but the gas dispersed without causing any injuries.

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

But Mobil refinery manager Wyman Robb, in a press conference after the report was released, said company officials never were asked to provide all disciplinary reports--only a few. “We gave them four examples,” he said.

Robb added that 165 employees had received punishment, including written reprimands, suspensions, demotions or firings for safety violations between 1978 and 1988, and an additional 82 were punished for poor work performance during that period.

None of those statistics were in the Gage-Babcock report, and the consultants’ response questioned whether Mobil had been forthright.

“We don’t understand why Mobil did not provide us requested information on action for poor performance after a specific written request had been made . . . while Mobil was willing to compile and release 10-year disciplinary action statistics to the press within two days after the publication of the report.”

The consultants said that they had told Mobil they needed to evaluate disciplinary action at the refinery and asked to see disciplinary reports but got only the four.

“At no time did Mobil volunteer, until after the publication of the safety audit report, that the number of disciplinary actions during the last 11 years runs into hundreds,” the Gage-Babcock response said.

The consultants said they then asked about discipline involving supervisors. “We were told that Mobil would look into it and respond. Nothing happened thereafter.”

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In Mobil’s critique of the Gage-Babcock report, the oil company also said refinery management was unaware until officials saw the final report that the study’s scope included an evaluation of management practices.

In this week’s response, Gage-Babcock said: “When we made requests for disciplinary actions, Mobil never questioned whether the consultants were charged with the responsibility or had the expertise to evaluate these reports.”

Mobil also criticized the consultants’ report for evaluating management practice without interviewing the refinery manager or other ranking officials.

In response, Gage-Babcock said that its employees dealt with the manager of safety, training and community relations, as well as Mobil’s audit coordinator.

Although the work on the report took five months, “neither the refinery manager nor any other person higher than the audit coordinator ever contacted us,” the response adds.

“It would have been prudent on (the) part of refinery management to come forward and provide us with as much information as they could . . . “

Meanwhile, a dispute over another report on Mobil appears to be arising.

The study, paid for by Mobil and released last week, found little risk in the refinery’s use of hydrofluoric acid.

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But the Torrance City Council wasn’t so sure.

So the council decided to hire its own consultant to check on the Mobil consultant.


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