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Mobil to Present Its Case on Torrance Refinery Safety : Chemicals: The firm says additive lowers risks of using hydrofluoric acid. Questions will be answered at a public hearing tonight.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The use of toxic hydrofluoric acid at a Torrance refinery has long fueled bitter debate about the potential effects on the thousands of people who live close to the refinery grounds.

That debate may finally be resolved this month if Mobil Oil Corp. can prove to Torrance officials and residents that a multimillion-dollar research effort has produced a safer form of the chemical.

At issue: whether Mobil can continue using “HF” at its Torrance refinery or must make a costly switch to sulfuric acid.

Mobil and Torrance officials will answer questions at a public meeting at 7 tonight at the Torrance Cultural Arts Center near Madrona Avenue and Torrance Boulevard.

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Hydrofluoric acid has prompted concern nationally since industry-sponsored tests in 1986 in the Nevada desert found that a 1,000-gallon spill could produce a lethal cloud as far as five miles downwind. Mobil keeps about 29,000 gallons of the chemical at its Torrance refinery.

Now, Mobil researchers say they have pinpointed an additive that dramatically reduces hydrofluoric acid’s cloud-forming capacity. A court-supervised consulting firm recommended Jan. 3 that the refinery continue using HF, concluding that the additive “can provide a substantial reduction in the potential risk” of the acid.

Some environmentalists are criticizing the firm’s report and are calling for the public disclosure of the Mobil documents on which it was based.

“They should let the rest of us in on this, so we can see how honest it is,” said Washington, D.C.-based environmentalist Fred Millar.

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Mobil has labeled those documents confidential.

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The city has until Feb. 2 to decide whether to accept the report’s recommendations, and the City Council could make a decision as early as Tuesday.

Worries about hydrofluoric acid helped spur Torrance’s 1989 public nuisance lawsuit against Mobil, alleging “severe problems with safety conditions and procedures at the refinery.” The suit resulted in a 1990 pact in which Mobil agreed to phase out HF unless a safe form was developed by the end of 1994.

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City officials have praised Mobil for recent safety improvements. But concerns flared anew Oct. 19 when an explosion and fire ripped through the refinery, injuring 28 workers. The cause of the accident remains under investigation by Cal/OSHA, the state job safety agency, which is not expected to issue its report until mid-February.


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