WASHINGTON - Mobil Chemical Co. is selling its composites operation to its top managers, but the move apparently is not eliminating the possibility that the company may have to defend itself in congressional oversight hearings for allegedly tampering with federal highway test results of one of its products. A Mobil spokesman said there is no connection between the events.
Hearings before a House Transportation subcommittee are being considered and a preliminary investigation by congres-sional staff is under way on charges that Mobil altered testing results of its Trex composite plastic product in highway guardrail applications, then presented the documents to several state highway departments.
Chris Arthur, legislative director for U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., confirmed May 22 that the House Transportation Infrastruc-ture subcommittee is considering oversight hearings into the matter.
In September 1995, Hinchey wrote the first of several letters from Congress to the federal Department of Transportation's Inspector General inquiring about allegedly altered Trex test documents, Arthur said.
Trex is the trade name for Mobil's polyethylene and sawdust nonstructural lumber product. Some recent Trex projects include Toronto's Lake Ontario boardwalk and in the Presidential Trail at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.
The application in question involves blocks of plastic lumber used in place of wood for spacing between metal guardrails and the upright stanchions that support them.
These products border many highways nationwide.
At the same time, Mike Kimmitt, spokesman for Mobil Corp. in Fairfax, Va., confirmed May 22 that ``active negotiations are taking place with senior managers, some of whom are employed with Mobil's Com-posites Products Division, over the terms of a potential buyout.''
Said Kimmitt, ``I don't really know if there is an investigation. To our knowledge, there has been no finding of fault'' regarding Trex and its highway guardrail applications.
The existence of a congres-sional investigation is ``not tied to the [sale] issue at all. We would not make decisions based on unfounded and unfair allegations,'' Kimmitt said.
Mobil officials have noted their desire to return to core petroleum interests for years. The Composite Products Division is the latest of its plastics businesses Mobil Chemical started shedding five years ago.
Six months ago, in order to coordinate its plastic lumber activities in one location, Mobil Chemical moved its Composite Products Division headquarters to its lone plastic lumber manufacturing operation in Win-chester, Va., on Jan. 1.
The original allegations of document tampering by Mobil Chemical were made by David F. Dunning, a Washington consultant to Advanced Environmental Recycling Technologies, a composite-lumber competitor of Mobil's. Dunning, president of Recycling Technologies Inc., compared documents presented to state highway officials and similar test documents filed with the federal Department of Transpor-tation.
Dunning, who said the federal documents were secured through a Freedom of Information Act request, alleged the test-result documents presented to state officials contained only two pages, while the version filed with federal officials contained three.
Arthur noted: ``Mobil has admitted one of their employees altered a DOT document concerning the safety of their products, then distributed the altered document to state highway departments. Mobil said it was the act of one rogue employee and the recommendations were not significant, although others would disagree.
``Our involvement is in the area of highway safety and possible fraud. We found this interesting that this is going on at the same time the [federal] speed limit was raised - and that states are putting up guardrails that can't work in a crash.''
Hinchey has been joined by Rep. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., in calling for clarification by Mobil of the highway ``blockout'' devices in question.
Hutchinson, who is a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, represents Arkansas' Third District, which includes Springdale, AERT's headquarters city.
Randi Fredholm, legislative director for Hutchinson, said May 21: ``We have made inquiries to the Department of Transpor-tation to determine if DOT documents had been altered. This has now gone on almost a year.
``The congressman contacted [federal Transportation Secretary Federico] Pena in February asking for an update on the investigation, at least to reveal as much about it as could be appropriate, and if they had a target date. The congressman felt that the response received from the department was not adequate.
``A year later, the congressman feels that something is wrong,'' Fredholm said.
``We have heard that a number of state highway agencies have withdrawn the use of the product based on the allegations. There are also questions about the crashworthiness of these blockouts,'' Fredholm said.
No Mobil officials have appeared in congressional offices to review any of the allegations, she said.
Kimmitt said, however, that ``There was no crash data withheld or in any way changed'' in the original DOT crash-test results document. ``The information removed was extraneous and done in full understanding of the [highway department] recipient.''
Another New York member of Congress, Nita M. Lowey, a Dem-ocrat who represents the district bordering New York City and including White Plains, also addressed correspondence to Pena, Fredholm said.
Neither Hinchey nor Lowey are members of the transportation and infrastructure committee.
As for the sale of the composites division to managers, negotiations have been preliminary for the last two months, Kimmitt said, and have only recently become active. The division, Kimmitt said, is ``performing quite well.''
``Mobil is looking for growth opportunities in oil, gas and chemicals. We believe this asset [the composites group] may be more appealing to others,'' he said.
The managers involved in the buyout negotiations have ``been working with the product for some time.'' The process of the buyout ``should be encouraging news to the employees of the Composites Products Division,'' Kimmitt said.
Robert Matheny, current general manager of the Winchester, Va.-based composites unit, and confirmed by Kimmitt as an active participant in the talks, was not available May 22 for comment.
Lawrence Umstadter, the former Mobil manager once in charge of the division that produces Trex, said he had no knowledge of the sale talks.
Umstadter, now a consultant and president of Projects Inter-national Inc. of Lakeland, Fla., oversaw the purchase of River-head Milling Co.'s plastics lumber operation by Mobil. That company produced Trex's predecessor, Rivenite, in a plant in Tampa, Fla., which Mobil eventually closed.
Umstadter said one of his client companies produces a blockout design in plastic lumber that competes with Trex.