Newspapers Seek Access to Mobil Documents : Torrance: Oil firm argues that information given to the city to resolve a suit over refinery safety should be kept secret. A judge will decide.


Tens of thousands of Mobil Oil Corp. documents turned over to the city of Torrance last year during a landmark lawsuit should be made available to the public for review, a newspaper attorney argued Thursday.

Attorneys for Mobil, however, warned retired Judge Harry Peetris that allowing the Los Angeles Times and the Daily Breeze to see the documents could endanger progress under the consent decree reached last October between Tor rance and Mobil.

“It’s none of their business, flatly,” attorney Max Gillam argued. “It’s really just none of their business.”


The newspapers filed a petition last month seeking access to the material as part of their ongoing coverage of problems at Mobil Oil’s Torrance refinery. The city filed its lawsuit in April, 1989, after a series of accidents, deaths and injuries at the plant raised concerns about the refinery’s impact on public health and safety.

Peetris was hired to oversee the consent agreement, which Mobil and the city agreed to in October instead of going to trial. He said he would rule later on whether the documents should become public record.

In addition to the request by the newspapers, attorneys from Trial Lawyers for Public Justice--a national public-interest law firm that specializes in precedent-setting damage and trial litigation--indicated Thursday that they also will be seeking access to the documents on behalf of Friends of the Earth, the California Public Interest Research Group and several residents of Torrance.

At issue are nearly 66,000 pages of material that Mobil released to the city’s attorneys under court order as part of Torrance’s pre-trial research.

Under terms of a consent decree, Mobil must phase out or significantly modify its use of highly toxic hydrofluoric acid over the next seven years. In addition, the agreement calls for a court-appointed safety adviser to monitor a broad range of safety and environmental issues at the refinery.

The consent decree did not, however, provide for the public’s right of access to information about the refinery.

Under a protective order signed by both sides at the start of the lawsuit, Mobil already has designated as confidential at least 13,000 pages of the documentation it turned over to the city during its 18-month discovery process.

Attorneys for Torrance have said they would give reporters the 53,000 pages not marked confidential if Peetris decided such a release would not violate the protective order.

“It is the press’s business because it is the public’s business,” said Ralph Nutter, who represents Torrance.

Mobil’s attorneys argued Thursday, however, that the pages not marked confidential should be treated as if they had been.

“We would have taken a very different approach to confidentiality if we had thought we were turning these documents over to the Los Angeles Times, Copley Press, Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, Friends of the Earth and all the others,” Gillam told Peetris. “There are a lot of documents not marked confidential . . . that would disclose things about personnel matters, medical records, trade secrets and other proprietary material.”

Weeding through the documents to figure out which are confidential and which are not “would be far too expensive and burdensome” to warrant release, he said.

But Glen Smith, an attorney for The Times who also was arguing the case for Copley Press, said Mobil officials already had their chance to designate which pages contained information they believe to be confidential.

“If Mobil wanted a broader restriction on the city, that easily could have been made part of the protective order,” Smith said.

Once reporters have reviewed the non-confidential material, Smith said, the newspapers may seek access to some of the 13,000 pages designated confidential if there is reason to believe that they do not contain legally privileged information.

“The public has a right to review these materials to ensure that adequate steps are being taken to safeguard their rights and health,” he said.