Torrance City Council members on Tuesday selected a nonprofit research firm from Menlo Park as their nominee for safety adviser at Mobil Oil’s Torrance refinery.
Describing SRI International as “clearly the best” out of an original field of 30 candidates, council members said they were impressed by the firm’s experience analyzing safety in the petrochemical field and in a number of other industries.
The safety adviser position is a major component in the October pretrial settlement of a public nuisance lawsuit Torrance filed against Mobil in 1989. Under the terms of the agreement, the adviser will analyze safety at the refinery, make recommendations to improve safety measures and oversee the phasing out or modification of highly toxic hydrofluoric acid at the plant.
Mobil, however, has chosen another nominee for the position, and representatives of the company and the city will now try to work out a compromise.
Councilman Tim Mock cast the only vote against SRI’s selection, saying he wanted further details about a safety audit the firm conducted recently for an unnamed oil refinery. SRI’s contract for that audit prevents the consultant from revealing who the client was or where the refinery is located.
City Atty. Kenneth L. Nelson said city officials know only that the client was not Mobil Oil.
The City Council’s discussion of the safety adviser candidates took place behind closed doors, but the 6-1 vote was taken in public. State open-meeting laws prevented council members from conducting private interviews of the candidates, and council members said they did not want to conduct such interviews in public.
Instead, a committee of city officials--including the city manager, city attorney, fire chief, fire marshal and outside legal counsel--screened the consultants. SRI was their unanimous recommendation from a list of four finalists, Nelson said.
Mobil informed the city last month that its nominee for the position is Westinghouse’s Energy Systems Business Unit, which is primarily involved in the design and service of commercial nuclear power plants but which also provides risk assessment for the nuclear and petrochemical industries.
Mobil’s Torrance refinery manager, Joel Maness, said Mobil is withholding judgment on SRI.
“It’s hard for me to say much at this point because I’m not at all familiar with SRI,” Maness said. “We’ll interview them and see what kind of experience and expertise they can bring to the role and then I’m sure we’ll have more to say.”
City officials, who had until Wednesday to notify Mobil of their nominee, now must meet with Mobil representatives to try to work out a compromise on which consultant ultimately will serve as safety adviser.
If the two sides cannot agree--which Nelson said is likely to be the case--the decision will be made by retired Superior Court Judge Harry V. Peetris, who is overseeing the consent decree.
Nelson said compromise negotiations will not begin until the second week in January.
Council members criticized Westinghouse as having little experience with refinery audits.
“A lot of these organizations can go out and get you the expertise you want, but when somebody already has the experience, that’s better than having someone else go out and put together a team for you,” Councilman Bill Applegate said. “We feel that SRI is the best firm available to do the job.”
Nelson said the city will remain open-minded during compromise discussions.
“When we sit down (to talk), we may hear about experience that Westinghouse has had that we did not know about,” he said. “Westinghouse is very, very good. I think SRI is a whole lot better.”
Founded in 1946 as Stanford Research Institute, an arm of Stanford University, SRI gained prominence for its pioneering research in radar and laser technology for the U.S. Defense Department after the Korean War. The firm became completely independent of Stanford in 1970, said Dennis Maxwell, vice president for corporate marketing and communications.
Now one of the largest nonprofit research firms in the United States, SRI employs more than 3,500 people in laboratories ranging from Princeton to Australia. At least 2,000 workers are employed at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park near Stanford.
“We do everything from pharmaceutical research . . . to policy work for economic competitiveness of states and countries to health care cost containment to physical sciences work and engineering work,” Maxwell said.
If selected to be safety adviser, SRI would view the project as a cross between health and safety consultation and environmental risk assessment, said William Ralston, manager of environmental business programs.
“The primary objective of the consent decree is to protect the health and safety of both employees and the local residents,” Ralston said. “We have worked for companies in the past who have asked us to do similar types of reviews of their facilities, really with the same objectives in mind. . . . This is right up our alley.”