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Firm to Watch Mobil Safety From Cypress, 20 Miles Away : Torrance: City officials think Westinghouse should monitor operations from a base closer to the trouble-plagued refinery.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The firm charged with monitoring safety at the troubled Mobil Oil Corp. refinery in Torrance is setting up shop--not in Torrance, but in the Orange County city of Cypress.

That came as a surprise to some Torrance officials who think Westinghouse Electric Corp. should have its office at or near the 750-acre refinery that has been plagued for years by a series of deadly explosions and fires. They question whether Westinghouse, charged with monitoring the refinery through 1997, can be a vigilant watchdog from 20 miles across the car-choked freeways of the Los Angeles Basin.

“If you’re going to be doing a long-term investigation, it makes sense to have (the office) on site,” Mayor Katy Geissert said.

City Atty. Kenneth L. Nelson said Wednesday that the city will ask Westinghouse to rethink its plans and move to Torrance. If Westinghouse declines, he said, the city could ask the judge supervising the firm for a ruling.

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Westinghouse was assigned in June by retired Superior Court Judge Harry V. Peetris to monitor the refinery as part of a consent decree that settled a 1989 public nuisance lawsuit. The suit was filed by the city after a series of accidents, deaths and explosions over several years called the refinery’s safety into question.

City Councilman Tim Mock said he had presumed that Westinghouse would open an office on the refinery’s grounds, not in Orange County.

“This is rather disturbing to me,” he said.

In February, Mobil spokesman James A. Carbonetti told The Times that it was Westinghouse’s intention “to permanently locate people into Torrance for the conduct of this seven-year association with the city and Mobil.”

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Westinghouse officials now say they considered a Torrance office but opted for existing Westinghouse quarters in Cypress. Telephone lines and electronic mail will keep them in close touch with the refinery, the officials said this week in a telephone interview from the corporation’s Pittsburgh headquarters.

To monitor the refinery, Westinghouse will obtain data from Mobil and Torrance officials, and will make regular visits to the site.

The debate illustrates the continuing ambiguity of the adviser’s role under the October, 1990, consent decree. The widely praised decree created the adviser’s job, believed to be the only one of its kind at a U.S. refinery.

The city, which has spent $1.4 million on the suit to date, was enthusiastic about the decree until the court named Westinghouse as adviser. One councilman worried that the monitoring would amount to “a fox watching the chicken coop.”

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City officials have questioned Westinghouse’s own safety and environmental record, particularly at a federal nuclear waste dump in Washington state that Westinghouse operates. In hearings in April, the city tried to show that Westinghouse’s experience is weighted heavily toward nuclear energy rather than refineries.

Mobil had asked the court to name Westinghouse as its overseer, while Torrance city officials nominated SRI International of Menlo Park. SRI planned two offices--one at the refinery and one elsewhere in Torrance.

SRI had also budgeted considerably more for the job, up to $1 million on phase one alone. Westinghouse, by contrast, projected spending $350,000 through 1997. Mobil will pay all costs.

But Peetris called the Westinghouse proposal “clearly superior” and praised the experience of its project team members in risk management and other areas.

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Although city officials were stunned by the judge’s selection, they say they remain optimistic that the adviser concept will succeed.

“We certainly are making every effort we can to make this work,” said city Fire Department Battalion Chief Richard R. Nanney, the city’s hazardous materials officer and its liaison with Westinghouse.

Nanney said he would prefer to have Westinghouse located in Torrance but thinks the firm can operate effectively from Cypress.

The office there will officially open Sept. 3. For now, the adviser job will be handled by one full-time staff person in Cypress, program manager Steven T. Maher, with help from other Westinghouse employees.

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Westinghouse is preparing a detailed work plan, said project director B. Griffith Holmes. He estimates the firm should have a general assessment of refinery safety within six months after the September start-up.

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