EL SEGUNDO — The discovery of low levels of potentially explosive hydrocarbon vapors thought to be leaking from the Chevron USA Inc. refinery into the city's manufacturing district has left many business operators worried and city officials resentful that Chevron did not tell them about the hydrocarbon pool for three years.
"I truly resent the fact that they discovered this pool three years ago and made the decision not to tell us," Mayor Charles (Chip) Armstrong said.
"Apparently a game's being played here by a special set of rules that does not include the citizens--or city officials, for that matter--of El Segundo."
Armstrong said that the incident has "virtually shattered" the historically close relationship between Chevron and the city and has placed the two in "a somewhat adversarial relationship."
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 10, 1985 Home Edition South Bay Part 9 Page 7 Column 1 Zones Desk 3 inches; 90 words Type of Material: Correction
Because of a researcher's error, The Times incorrectly identified the medical effects associated with exposure to hydrocarbon vapors in a Jan. 31 article on hydrocarbon vapors discovered in El Segundo. The medical effects were described as nausea, eye irritation, giddiness and a metallic taste in the mouth, with decreased blood pressure, rapid pulse rate, and lesions on the spinal cord and nerve tissue possible after repeated exposure. Those effects, however, are associated with a specific type of hydrocarbon not found in the gasoline-type vapors discovered in El Segundo and Manhattan Beach. Analysis of these vapors is continuing.
Chevron officials say they first detected the pool--which they described as a "sort of gasoline mud pie"--several years ago and informed state regulatory agencies, but did not see anything unusual enough to alert the city. Chevron says it has discovered seven such pools over the years and has been pumping hydrocarbons from them since the late 1970s.
First Time Through Soil
However, company spokesmen said in a press conference last week that this latest pool, estimated to be about three to four city blocks wide and extending at least one block outside Chevron boundaries into the city, is the first in which the company has detected hydrocarbon vapors migrating from the pool and moving freely through the soil.
City officials say they were not aware of the pool until April, when city crews building a storm drain at Arena Street and Franklin Avenue discovered the fumes.
Medical research indicates that a single exposure to hydrocarbon vapors of more than 20 parts per million can result in nausea, eye irritation, giddiness and a metallic taste in the mouth. Repeated exposure at that level can result in decreased blood pressure, rapid pulse rate, and lesions on the spinal cord and the nerve tissue connecting the right and left hemispheres of the brain.
The vapors are said to be explosive at levels of more than 10,000 ppm.
While Chevron officials maintain that testing in the area has shown levels of no more than 2 ppm, many business operators and employees in the district say they have experienced a much higher incidence of symptoms such as nausea and dizziness--particularly in hot weather--since the crews opened up the ground in that area. And despite reassurances from the city, they remain worried about the possibility of explosion.
Richard Wiley, co-owner of Wiley Associates directly in front of the discovery site, said he is angry and upset that neither the city nor the refinery informed businesses in the area of the discovery before last week.
"You know, we have special masks and rubber gloves that we use on doctor's orders whenever we will be dealing directly with hydrocarbon fumes," said Wiley, whose business involves repairing vapor recovery systems and gasoline pump nozzles. "And then when we think we're safe, we take them off and it turns out we're probably sucking the fumes up all the time.
"I find it kind of ironic that Chevron can have a hydrocarbon pool three blocks wide and they act like it's nothing to worry about, but their own gas station two blocks from the refinery can get fined for having a 3/4-inch slit in a gas pump nozzle. Where's the logic in that?"
Wiley explained that state regulations prohibit gas station operators from using cracked or slit pumps that could emit hydrocarbon fumes. Such nozzles, he said, are locked and red-tagged until repaired, and the owner faces fines of up to $400 for each nozzle with more than a 3/4-inch opening.
Jerry Becker, co-owner of GBI Printing, which is also across from the discovery site, said that although he has been there four years and most of his customers are in El Segundo, he has given notice to his landlord that he is moving.
"I don't think they really know what they're dealing with here, and that scares me. I'm a heart patient. I already have respiratory problems. I don't want to jeopardize my health or the health of my employees. I'm not going to wait around 10 years and then find out that this thing caused some sort of long-term damage. We might be sitting on another Love Canal for all anyone knows. I'm sure not going to trust what Chevron tells me about it."
Dotted with printing businesses, foundries, and other light industry, Sleepy Hollow, as the area is known, is a mix of mostly small businesses and some residences that sit virtually in the shadow of the giant Chevron refinery in the city's southeast quadrant.
'A People Area Now'
For years residents have looked to the looming refinery as a benefactor that supplied a bulk of the city's revenue through sales taxes and was a generous contributor to civic projects.