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City Launches Drive to End Use of Hydrofluoric Acid at Oil Refinery

Times Staff Writer

Torrance City Councilman Dan Walker launched a direct-mail initiative campaign aimed at forcing Mobil Oil Corp. to abandon the use of acutely toxic hydrofluoric acid at its Torrance refinery.

In a slick, professional mailing more typical of a legislative race than a local ballot campaign, the politically ambitious councilman warned last week that Mobil’s use of the lethal acid could threaten the lives of thousands of Torrance residents in an accident.

Mobil officials rejected that charge Wednesday but refused to comment further. Last month, the oil company released a risk assessment concluding that use of the chemical poses almost no danger to Torrance residents.

Motives Questioned

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Walker’s council colleagues immediately questioned his motives, suggesting that the initiative was intended to advance his political career rather than solve safety problems at the refinery.

The City Council has been scrutinizing Mobil’s operations in the wake of explosions, fires and accidents that have claimed three lives and caused more than a dozen serious injuries at the refinery in the last two years.

Walker’s mass mailing to 45,650 Torrance households features a large color photograph of a spectacular fire that followed a massive explosion at the refinery in November, 1987. The blast was caused by an excess of hydrofluoric acid in a refinery unit that produces unleaded gasoline.

Although none of the 100 pounds of acid released in the explosion escaped the refinery grounds, the blast focused attention on the potential hazard posed by use of the chemical.

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Walker’s mailer warns residents that their health and safety are threatened. It says: “The Mobil Oil refinery . . . stores large quantities of hydrofluoric acid, a dangerous toxic chemical that could, in the event of an accidental spill, threaten the health and the lives of thousands of Torrance residents.”

It says hydrofluoric acid has been found in oil industry tests to be as dangerous as a different chemical that leaked from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, in December, 1984, killing more than 3,000 people.

Walker’s mailer, to be delivered late this week to the homes of registered voters, includes a petition to ban the storage of more than 250 gallons of hydrofluoric acid at any industrial site in Torrance. He asked registered voters to sign the petitions and return the initiative as soon as possible in a postage-paid envelope.

Tony Miller, chief deputy secretary of state, said collecting signatures on initiatives by mail is legal provided that the petitions are completed properly. The direct-mail technique is often used for statewide ballot measures, he said.

In an interview, Walker said he is most concerned about the health and safety of Torrance residents. “This chemical is incompatible with this community,” he said.

However, his colleagues on the City Council suggested a different motive.

Torrance Mayor Katy Geissert said: “It’s an obvious means to promote Dan Walker and his political ambitions.”

Seeks Legislative Seat

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An 11-year veteran on the Torrance City Council, Walker has made no secret of his desire to run for the state Legislature, particularly the Assembly. He explored running for the 51st Assembly District seat held by Assemblyman Gerald N. Felando (R-San Pedro) until Felando decided to drop out of the 42nd Congressional District race and run for reelection. Walker later finished last among three incumbents in the March, 1988, Torrance City Council election.

Geissert said the City Council is pursuing a more reasonable course by attempting to obtain a court ruling on the city’s ability to regulate hydrofluoric acid.

“The problem will not go away if people sign this initiative,” Geissert said. And she warned that defending the ballot measure against a legal challenge by Mobil could exhaust the city’s resources.

Councilman Mark Wirth accused Walker of engaging in “a blatantly political act for his own benefit” rather than a serious effort to protect Torrance residents. “I think it’s irresponsible on his part,” he said.

Councilman Bill Applegate called the initiative “a self-serving political mailer” intended to advance Walker’s “future political endeavors.”

Success Predicted

Nevertheless, both Geissert and Applegate predicted that the councilman’s appeal to the fears of Torrance residents will produce enough signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot.

The measure would qualify for the March, 1989, municipal election ballot if Walker receives the signatures of 10% of the city’s 70,023 registered voters.

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Walker said he takes great pride in his name being attached to the initiative, but he refused to discuss his political ambitions. “My political future is absolutely that--in the future,” he said. “I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen.”

The direct-mail signature-gathering effort, financed entirely by Walker’s campaign funds, was designed by veteran Los Angeles political consultant Allan Hoffenblum, the campaign adviser to several South Bay legislators, including Felando, Sen. Robert G. Beverly (R-Manhattan Beach) and freshman Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Lomita).

Legal work to draft the initiative and the direct-mail signature gathering will cost an estimated $50,000 in campaign funds, Walker said.

Campaign Surplus

Under the campaign contribution limits of Proposition 73, which took effect Jan. 1, officeholders cannot spend previously raised campaign funds on their reelection campaigns. So Walker is devoting his campaign surplus to the initiative.

“I think it is one of the most important things in the history of the city of Torrance,” Walker said. “It could well end up being very important nationally as other communities deal with other refineries and other chemicals.”

Walker said the only way to guarantee that a catastrophic accident involving hydrofluoric acid does not occur is to effectively ban the chemical. He said the initiative could force Mobil to switch to less-dangerous sulfuric acid as a catalyst to boost the octane of unleaded gasoline. Most major South Bay refineries use sulfuric acid.

Mobil Refinery Manager Wyman D. Robb said the initiative campaign “comes as no surprise,” since Walker had previously announced his intentions.

Analyzing Impact

Mobil spokeswoman Carole Edwards said company officials are analyzing the potential impact of the initiative on refinery operations.

“Our feeling about this is we don’t think that the measure would make Torrance a healthier or safer place. It could be a detriment,” Edwards said.


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