Mobil Efforts Disclosed to Preempt Torrance's Authority

Times Staff Writers

Mobil Oil Corp. has been pressing for legislation that could preempt the city of Torrance's authority to require a risk management plan for extremely hazardous chemicals stored at the company's refinery.

But Frederick Taugher, a Mobil lobbyist, said Wednesday, after The Times began to make inquiries about the proposal, that he had been told by Mobil management that the company would not proceed with pressure for any legislation.

"We had been in preliminary discussions, but they made the decision not to pursue those any further," Taugher said.

In an earlier interview, Taugher said he had talked to the offices of at least two lawmakers, Assemblyman Richard Floyd (D-Carson) and Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles).

Floyd said Wednesday that he does not plan to help Mobil, partly because the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn for the year on Sept. 15. "It's too late in the year to do anything," Floyd said. "They should have been doing something earlier."

A source close to Torres indicated that the senator declined to champion Mobil's proposal.

Stepped-Up Lobbying

Mobil, upset with city efforts to regulate the refinery after a November, 1987, hydrofluoric acid explosion and two-day fire drew attention to the facility, has recently stepped up its lobbying efforts in the Capitol.

The Torrance refinery, which supplies 12% of Southern California's gasoline, uses hydrofluoric acid to boost octane levels. Mobil has estimated that it would cost $100 million to switch to sulfuric acid, the catalyst used by most other major refineries.

Earlier this year, Mobil acknowledged that it was considering seeking legislation to preempt Torrance's regulation of the lethal chemical.

In the past week, according to several legislative sources, Mobil has intensified its efforts by pitching a proposal to curb the ability of small and medium-sized cities to require businesses to prepare a risk management report. The reports, authorized under state law, spell out the dangers of extremely hazardous materials at industrial sites and the procedures for protecting the public.

Taugher said Mobil has had "some discussion, . . . more exploratory than anything" with staff in the offices of Floyd and Torres. He said the talks had been partly to determine if it was feasible to expect any legislation to be introduced and enacted into law this year. He declined to provide details of his proposal.

"There is a considerable problem of cities in the same general area developing different standards for the use of hazardous materials," Taugher said. "What one city does . . . affects neighboring cities."

Initiative Cited

Taugher also cited a Torrance ballot initiative aimed at forcing Mobil to stop using hydrofluoric acid in the city as another reason for pressing for legislation. The measure is scheduled to be on the ballot next March.

In addition, the city filed a lawsuit against Mobil in April alleging that the refinery is a public nuisance and seeking the authority to regulate it.

Before Mobil decided to drop its legislative proposal, Taugher said: "Obviously, the election is of concern, but as I say, nobody has made a decision about doing anything."

Assemblyman Gerald Felando (R-San Pedro), who said he discussed the matter with Floyd on Tuesday, said he would have "opposed it vigorously. The constituents in that community have the right to decide what's going to happen with Mobil Oil. Nobody else (does). . . ." Felando, whose district includes Torrance, added: "I don't believe another legislator should meddle in another legislator's district."

Infuriated Torrance officials characterized Mobil's lobbying effort as an attempt to end-run their efforts.

"It's another example of them trying to subvert a process and get around a safety problem," said Councilman Dan Walker, who sponsored the ballot measure. "The industry and Mobil have watered down the risk management requirements to such an extent that they're almost useless now, and then to try to take Torrance out of it. . . It's underhanded."

'Hatchet Work'

Walker said he doubts that Mobil would have found a sponsor even if it had decided to continue its lobbying efforts.

"I can't imagine anyone doing Mobil's hatchet work for them," he said. "Mobil's got to understand that they've got to start working with people and stop trying to subvert the process."

Under current law, cities and counties have the option of requiring businesses to perform a risk management assessment to catalogue the dangers of hazardous materials they handle, partly to help health and fire departments prepare emergency plans.

The Mobil proposal, according to two legislative sources, sought to prohibit cities with populations under about 200,000 from being able to require such a program. The population of Torrance is 141,500.

"I think that's outrageous," Mayor Katy Geissert said. "I understand what their practical logic is, but what is their public logic? Are they trying to say that people in smaller cities are less susceptible to the effects of hazardous substances? . . . This would put cities like Torrance at the mercy of big government and the power of well-heeled lobbyists."

Last March, a Mobil study, required under present law, concluded that continued use of hydrofluoric acid at the Torrance refinery poses almost no risk to the public. The study also concluded that there is less than a 1% chance each year of a single death occurring in the community from the use of the lethal acid.

Negotiations Going On

Since Mobil turned in the study, Torrance hazardous materials analysts have been negotiating with refinery officials to make the document more detailed and bring it into line with state regulations.

Torrance Fire Chief Scott Adams said Mobil's risk report was one of the first such studies prepared under the new state laws allowing cities to require them.

Because basic state guidelines for putting together such a study continue to change and had not even been completely written when Torrance ordered Mobil to begin work on its document, the fine-tuning could take several more months, Adams said.

Once the Mobil study has been completely reviewed, Adams said, Torrance intends to seek risk management assessments from other companies in the city.

Fine-Tuning Bill

Mobil sounded out Floyd about his interest in its proposal partly because he has introduced a bill to fine-tune the risk management program, according to a Floyd aide. Among other things, Floyd's measure would require local agencies to force businesses with the highest risk of an accident to prepare risk management programs ahead of other businesses.

Floyd minimized the significance of his staff's discussing Mobil's revisions to his bill, which is pending in the Senate.

"Everybody gets all excited because we discuss things," Floyd said. "That's what we're here for. . . . My door is open. We listen to everybody and all their problems, and we look at options."

Floyd said he was unsure of the details of the Mobil proposal. But, in apparent reference to the cost of switching to sulfuric acid for refining, Floyd said: "It's a $100-million problem to them," so it's natural for Mobil to seek legislative relief.

But losing the right to require risk management programs would harm Torrance's ability to regulate companies besides Mobil, City Atty. Kenneth Nelson said.

"We are an industrial city, and the (risk management) process is a very important element in protecting the health and safety of the public in this day and age," he said. Attempts to limit the rights of smaller cities "would be discriminatory," Nelson said.

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