City Assailed for Shelving Study on Chemical Hazards : Regulation: Ex-councilman who started project says Torrance is wasting chance to control risks. But the city says the program is too costly and unnecessary.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Torrance's decision to suspend the development of a program to regulate hazardous chemicals in the city is drawing criticism from the former City Council member who originally proposed the project.

The council last week voted to stop work on a program to establish local regulations on the use of "acutely hazardous materials" used by about 50 businesses ranging from a Dow chemical plant to Mobil's oil refinery.

Former councilman Timothy Mock, who persuaded the council to launch the regulatory effort in November, 1989, said Thursday that the city is wasting an opportunity to enhance public safety by establishing local control over dangerous chemicals.

"I think the city government should decide what's the acceptable risk for the community," Mock said.

Council members, however, said stricter state and federal regulations on hazardous chemicals have been imposed in recent years, making the Torrance program unnecessary. Another consideration, they say, is cost.

Torrance has paid $84,000 to Battelle Memorial Institute, an Ohio research firm that has been designing the program. By shelving the project, council members said, the city will save $54,700 it would have paid Battelle to complete the work. Mayor Katy Geissert said the council also was concerned about imposing another layer of permit regulations on recession-weary local businesses.

Geissert said the city already has taken action to regulate what many consider to be Torrance's most worrisome chemical, highly toxic hydrofluoric acid used at the Mobil Oil Co. refinery. Hydrofluoric acid, which vaporizes at room temperature and can form a lethal, ground-hugging cloud if released, is used to boost the octane in unleaded gasoline.

Under a consent decree with Torrance, Mobil has agreed to stop using the acid by the end of 1997 unless it can develop a safer form of the chemical by next year. Westinghouse Electric Corp., a safety adviser acting under the supervision of a retired judge, is responsible for assessing Mobil's success in that effort.

Mock, however, questions whether Westinghouse will adequately enforce the consent decree. He said the chemical regulation program, and a chemical review board that would have been created to enforce it, would have allowed the city to halt the use of hydrofluoric acid directly.

Mock proposed the regulatory effort as an alternative to an unsuccessful local initiative in 1990 that would have effectively banned hydrofluoric acid use at the Mobil refinery, where thousands of gallons of the highly toxic acid are stored.

The former councilman said that while recent changes in state and federal regulations are an improvement, they still do not prevent companies from using dangerous chemicals. "The companies still decide," he said.

Mock's stance drew support Thursday from Fred Millar, who follows toxic chemical issues for the Friends of the Earth environmental group in Washington, D.C. The Torrance program "could have been a model for local cities nationally," Millar said.

"If Torrance does not bite the bullet, nobody is going to do it for them," he said. "There is no federal magic bullet. Your state's (risk management program) stinks."

Geissert, however, said the council can revive the chemical regulatory effort later.

"This is something that could be pulled out of the drawer again," she said Thursday. "The work that has gone into it will not be lost. I think it's been mis-portrayed as being terminated. I do not want to give the impression that the city is throwing caution to the wind."

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