MAY 1989 - VOLUME 10 - NUMBER 5
N A M E S I N T H E N E W S
Torrance and Goliath
The Mobil oil corporation's refinery in Torrance, California, has been the site of repeated accidents and serious safety violations in recent years. The string of problems runs back to 1979, when a large vapor cloud of butane was inadvertently released, causing an explosion and fireball which killed three people. Two separate explosions at the plant during the summer of 1988 claimed two more lives and in the intervening years a series of fires, accidental emissions of dangerous fumes and other mishaps injured dozens of workers and Torrance residents.
The Torrance City Attorney's office filed suit last month to have the refinery declared a public nuisance and to give regulatory authority to the city. The lawsuit disparages Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Environmental Protection Agency efforts to put an end to plant problems, charging that the minor fines that Mobil has been slapped with over the years are nothing but a "license to pollute" and otherwise misbehave.
The lawsuit also warns that the combination of lax safety practices at the refinery and the presence of large quantities of hydrofluoric acid—a hazardous, volatile chemical used as a catalyst in the refining of unleaded fuel—could trigger a disaster of "Bhopal-like proportions." Commenting on that possibility City Attorney Kenneth Nelson said, "Tests done in Nevada on hydrofluoric acid [indicate that] the stuff can vaporize after an accidental spill or expulsion and move down-wind in such concentrations as to be extremely deadly.. .That got a lot of people thinking that we better do something." The threat of such a disaster has mobilized the people of Torrance to take on the Mobil giant.
Big Oil Rip-off
A 14-year-old lawsuit brought by the State of California and the City of Long Beach charging price-fixing on the part of six of the country's largest oil companies may finally go to trial after a favorable appeals court ruling last month. The case, consisting of two lawsuits, charges that Chevron Corp., Exxon Corp., Mobil Oil Corp., Shell Oil Co., Texaco Inc., and Union Oil Co. conspired to fix the price paid to California and Long Beach for crude oil from the Wilmington Oil Field, which is owned by the City of Long Beach. The companies allegedly colluded to keep the price artificially low from 1975 to 1985. The low-priced crude reportedly allowed them to increase greatly the profit margins of their West Coast refining operations.
Last month's court ruling overturns a lower court decision to dismiss the two suits. In reversing that decision and ordering the cases to trial, the appeals court found that there was "significant evidence of an antitrust conspiracy" on the part of the major oil companies.
Gray Davis, Controller for the State of California, said that the price-fixing case should reinforce popular concerns about manipulative gasoline pricing practices, and particularly about the rapid price increases since the Valdez oil spill. 'The monopoly power of the major oil companies over transportation of crude on the West
Coast and their ability to cut off independent refiners," Davis advised, "go a long way towards explaining the sudden price increase since the spill."
That CEO Glow
Neutron Products, Inc. is a Maryland-based company
that produces a number of advanced medical products, most notably radioactive isotopes used in cancer therapy. Like many other firms licensed to process radioactive substances, Neutron has a disastrous record of mishandling cobalt-60 and other hazardous materials at its plant. During contamination tests conducted in 1986, radiation detectors "went off the scale" at a number of plant sites. Most ominously, the tests showed Neutron's waste holding tank—an old model which is reportedly susceptible to leaks into groundwater—to be highly contaminated.
A more recent round of tests shows that the tank has yet to be decontaminated and in March, Maryland's environmental agency ordered Neutron to stop processing radioactive substances until a clean-up occurs.
Neutron's problems go to the very top, literally. Neutron's vice president Frank Schwoerer, while visiting a nuclear power facility in New York, set off several of the plant's radiation alarms with the cobalt-60 contamination on his clothing and person. Subsequent checks found "impermissible" levels of cobalt contamination in Mr. Schwoerer's car, as well as on a dining room chair and seat cushion, on a washing machine and in a vacuum bag at Schwoerer's home.
Pfizer Under Fire
TThe public relations people at Pfizer, Inc., the New York-based pharmaceutical and medical products conglomerate, are about to be put to the test. Representative John Dingell (D- Mich.), chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, is planning hearings on the marketing of Pfizer's Bjork-Shiley heart valve, a defective product which has been associated with 165 deaths world wide. Dingell is expected to question Pfizer executives about why they left the product on the market well after the company had information indicating that struts in the valve tended to fracture, risking serious injury and death to valve users. The valves were eventually pulled off the market in 1986.
Pfizer has been trying to keep the issue as quiet as possible by quickly settling civil claims (generally for $1 to $5 million) resulting from faulty heart valves.
Dingell's investigation may not, however, be the only threat to the company's efforts to keep the matter low-key. Los Angeles District Attorney Ira Reiner has also opened an inquiry into Pfizer's conduct in the case. The D.A.'s office collected documents relating to the production and marketing of the heart valve and is trying to establish whether there are facts sufficient to warrant a criminal prosecution in Los Angeles County.
— Garth Bray