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Mobil Is Accused of Safety Violations in Fatal Refinery Blast

Times Staff Writer

Mobil Oil Corp. and two top officials at its Torrance refinery have been charged with violating state safety standards in an explosion a year ago that killed a man and injured two others, according to documents released Monday.

The misdemeanor charges--filed late Friday in order to avoid the deadline of a statute of limitations--name refinery Manager Wyman Robb and Tom Gregory, then assistant refinery manager for Mobil, in a total of six separate counts of “willfully” violating occupational safety standards. The Mobil officials also each face an additional charge that they “induced others to knowingly or negligently violate the state safety code.”

Gregory, who has since been reassigned, was also accused of two counts of obstructing Torrance fire officials. According to court documents, one Mobil employee at the explosion scene put his hand in front of a fire investigator’s camera and several others persuaded Mobil employees to stop talking to fire officials.

Penalties on each charge are jail terms up to six months and fines ranging from $1,000 to $5,000.

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In the fatal accident on July 15, 1988, Cal Cat Chemical employee Winston Alexander Jones, 30, of Harbor City was on top of a tank that exploded, killing him instantly. David Moustofi, 32, of Long Beach suffered second- and third-degree burns on 75% of his body and Jerry Lekberg, 41, of Oakland was burned on 5% of his body.

In filing the charges against Mobil, Torrance City Prosecutor J. D. Lord also threatened to seek an unusual probation condition that would allow a judge to shut the refinery down if it failed to live up to other future conditions of its probation.

Lord’s office filed the charges after the district attorney’s office decided that there was insufficient evidence to support felony involuntary manslaughter charges against the refinery’s supervisors and management, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Fred Macksoud.

“We felt there was negligence but we didn’t feel there was the gross negligence” necessary for a manslaughter conviction, said Macksoud, of the district attorney’s Environmental Crimes Division.

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Neither Robb nor Gregory was available for comment. But Mobil spokesman Jim Carbonetti said, “We are surprised and disappointed” by the charges and vowed to contest them in court.

Carbonetti added that company officials had cooperated fully with local, state and federal agencies and never had been advised about Torrance fire investigators’ complaints of interference. The investigators said in their report that the explosion was probably caused by failure to follow proper procedures in handling chemicals that can react with each other violently. Investigators said that the explosion may also have been caused by sparks from the use of the wrong electrical cords or the failure to ground equipment properly.

In addition to the charges against the Mobil officials, a subcontracting firm also faces action. Charged with three counts each of violating safety standards--but not willful or knowing negligence--were the president, chief chemist and project manager of Cal Cat Chemical Co. of Benicia, a refinery subcontracting firm whose workers were cleaning the contaminated water storage tanks at the refinery.

The explosion July 15 is one of a number of mishaps to plague Mobil’s refinery. The series of explosions, fires and accidents--which began with an explosion and two-day fire in November, 1987--prompted a city lawsuit alleging that the refinery is a public nuisance.

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In addition, an initiative measure will be placed on the ballot in March, 1990, to limit the refinery’s use of hydrofluoric acid, an acutely toxic substance used to boost the octane of unleaded gasoline.

Several hours before the July 15 explosion, an unrelated explosion and flash fire injured eight contractor workers, two seriously, in another part of the plant. Investigators pegged the cause of that accident to a welding torch that ignited fumes in a water treatment area.

In their report on the July 15 accident, city fire investigators faulted Mobil for failing to train refinery workers in handling the substances used to clean tanks holding water contaminated with sulfur compounds.

Investigators said that Mobil failed to establish and follow a hazardous-materials management plan. And investigators also said that Mobil had failed to inform employees of hazardous materials in their work area and that refinery officials did not follow their own safety procedures.

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The Mobil arraignment was set for Aug. 14 by Municipal Judge Thomas Sokolov.

Times staff writers Hugo Martin, James Rainey and Jeffrey L. Rabin contributed to this story.


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