MONTEBELLO — Prompted by recent methane gas explosions in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles, the city has hired a consultant to verify the Southern California Gas Co.'s contention that its underground storage of gas poses no danger to residents here.
In what city officials said would fulfill the need for a "second opinion," the petroleum engineering firm of Babson and Sheppard in Santa Fe Springs was hired at an estimated cost of $3,000 last week. The firm is expected to complete its report within a month.
The study will consist of discussions with state agencies that regulate the gas company and a review of the company's records, City Engineer Ayyad Ghobrial said. No testing will be conducted on the storage site or on homeowners' properties where methane gas leaks have occurred.
The decision to authorize the study comes five months after a group of residents filed suit against the gas company claiming that the periodic gas leaks caused health problems, diminished their property values and could cause an explosion.
Gas company officials continue to say that gas leaking from the storage field causes no problems.
However, council members "felt we needed a second opinion" in part because of questions raised by the explosions caused by methane gas leaks in the Fairfax District in March, said Ghobrial.
Mayor Art Payan said this week that though the city has no reason to doubt the company's assertions, it is committed to ensuring the safety of residents.
"Rather than having the gas company investigate themselves," he said, "we thought it would be well to have an outside opinion to assure ourselves that the citizens are protected."
Chance Williams, manager of the company's Southeast Division, said the gas company, which has operated here since 1956, has "had no injuries, no explosions, and when there's been a problem with migrating gas, we've moved aggressively to deal with it. So I would say that we've operated that facility in a very safe manner."
In the Fairfax incident, residual methane gas, originating in an abandoned oil field, exploded and destroyed a clothing store, injuring at least 20 people and touching off dozens of fires fed by fumes leaking through cracks in the earth.
In Montebello, the company stores gas in sandstone formation reservoirs in an inactive oil field underneath the city.
3 Homes Razed
The lawsuit charges that the gas company allowed explosive concentrations of methane gas to seep into homes and neighborhoods in a 1.5-square-mile area. The leaks have resulted in the evacuation and demolition of three homes in the northeastern part of the city bordered by Lincoln Avenue on the north, Beverly Boulevard on the south, Wilcox Avenue on the west and Poplar Avenue on the east.
Medical and environmental experts retained as consultants in the suit said it was "incredible" that no explosions or asphyxiations had occurred. They said that high concentrations of methane gas posed a "great risk" to people with heart and lung problems and recommended a health study of Montebello residents and the immediate removal of the stored gas.
The leaks were first discovered in May, 1983. In November, 1984, the gas company, after buying the properties, razed two homes on Maple Street and a third on El Camino to gain access to abandoned wells that were not properly sealed and through which gas was escaping, according to company spokesmen.
Originally filed by 40 residents, the suit was amended Monday to include 200 plaintiffs and named Operating Industries Inc. and Getty Synthetic Fuels as additional defendants.
Operating Industries owns a dump, now closed, less than two miles away in Monterey Park where gases have formed and escaped, perhaps contributing to the leaks and health complaints cited by residents, said Jerry Gordon, an attorney for the residents. The Getty company recovers methane gas at the dump site.
$200 Million Sought
Also named as a defendant in the suit is the Union Oil Co., which once owned the oil field beneath the city.
The suit calls for $200 million in punitive and other damages for loss of property value, medical care, injury and emotional and physical stress.
It also contends that the gas company has withheld information about the extent of the danger to Montebello residents and the nature of work on or near their properties.
Gas company officials, however, have denied those charges, saying that the company has kept residents informed.
The company, for example, is presenting an informational slide program about underground storage for the public in an "effort to be open with the community about what we're doing out there and our operations," Williams said.
On March 14, the gas company mailed letters to 4,000 residents assuring them that the underground storage field is safe and that its safety had been verified by state regulatory agencies.
State Vouches for Safety
Although the California Division of Oil and Gas, which regulates the gas company, has not issued a formal safety notification, the storage field is as "safe as we and they can make it," said Don Landee, a technical supervisor for the agency.
Landee said his agency "scrutinizes" the gas company's work on the abandoned wells, monitoring the safety valves four times a year.
"Nothing is ever perfectly safe," he said. "You risk something just by walking out to the street corner."
Landee predicted that leaks from the abandoned wells will occur again, saying that he does not rule out an incident similar to the Fairfax explosion, but that the odds of it happening are "very slight."