MONTEBELLO — Saying that many questions have been left unanswered, a dissatisfied City Council on Monday rejected a report that concludes that the Southern California Gas Co.'s monitoring of its underground gas storage system is "appropriate" and provides protection for residents.
The $12,000-study was compiled by Babson & Sheppard, a petroleum engineering consulting firm based in Santa Fe Springs, which the city retained in May to investigate the storage system and determine whether Montebello residents are endangered by natural gas leaks.
Babson & Sheppard concluded that the monitoring was "reasonable and realistic," although its report stated that the gas company had refused to answer questions about instruments and techniques used to monitor the leaks,
"I don't think I can go along with this," Councilman Phillip Ramos said. "The consultant says he did not receive all the information, yet he makes a conclusion. I'd like to know how he can do it. How can he make a conclusion?"
The council voted unanimously not to accept the report until the city gets more information from all available sources, including the gas company and the state Division of Oil and Gas which issues the gas company's operating permit and oversees its activities.
The council decided to order the firm to conduct more research and rejected a staff recommendation that the council accept the report.
Although Councilman William Nighswonger suggested that the council accept the report and seek more help from the consultant, the others questioned the study and pressed for rejection of the report until additional information is received.
"I'd like to get more specific statements," Councilman William Molinari said. "I am not prepared to accept this report. Our concern is for the safety of our residents and this report does not go far enough in answering questions."
The report, he said, stated that more leaks may occur but did not answer questions about whether the gas company's continued operations are contributing to the problem and increasing possible risks.
No one from Babson & Sheppard attended the meeting, and the council was unable to press the firm about the report's deficiencies.
In its report, Babson & Sheppard said that the gas company would not provide more information because it was sued in December by Montebello residents who claim that their health and property have been harmed by the leaks.
However, in a telephone interview Tuesday, John Bergquist, a petroleum engineer for Babson & Sheppard, said that the gas company had decided to answer most of the questions it initially refused to answer. But he said the answers were not received in time for the report's July 24 deadline.
Bergquist said that the gas company had responded in a telephone interview, that he had written down the data, sent it back to the gas company and is awaiting verification. He said he will submit an updated report to the city within two weeks.
In response to a reporter's inquiry, city officials said Tuesday that they were unaware that the consultant's report would be updated.
Mark Minnich, an attorney for the gas company, confirmed that the company had responded to the questions but that he had not yet reviewed Bergquist's work.
Montebello sits on top of what was once an oil field where 267 wells were drilled and later abandoned. Some were not properly capped. The gas company injects and stores gas into sandstone reservoirs underground where some of the wells are located. Since 1976, natural gas leaks have occurred, the gas escaping through some of the abandoned wells, resulting in the evacuation and destruction of three homes and the lawsuit filed against the gas company.
No Safety Problem
Gas company officials have said that gas leaking from the storage field causes no safety problem.
Robert Salmon, district manager for the gas company's Southeast division, said Tuesday, "We've always felt that we're doing the best that we possibly can to provide a safe condition for the Montebello residents."
Mayor Art Payan said Tuesday that the city staff "will go wherever they have to go to get information because we as a council are not going to be satisfied with significant questions being unanswered."
The report quoted officials from the Division of Oil and Gas as saying that Southern California Gas was doing a "good job" in its well repairs.
Richard Manuel, a technical support supervisor for the division of oil and gas, reiterated that appraisal in an interview, saying that he does not "see any immediate danger" to residents.
"The gas company," he said, "is doing an excellent job and there is no need for alarm."
The council called for the report in April, prompted by the gas explosion and fire that occurred in the Fairfax District in Los Angeles on March 24.