SAN PEDRO — Ten years after the oil tanker Sansinena exploded at the Union Oil terminal in Los Angeles Harbor, killing nine sailors and causing $21.6 million in damage, a small group of residents has renewed its fight to close the oil company's tank farm across the street from the new Cabrillo marina and recreation complex.
The 15-member Coastal and Harbor Hazards Council, formed as a result of the explosion, asserts in a lawsuit against the city's Harbor Department that the 2-million barrel, crude-oil tank farm is a threat to people using the marina and to residents who live adjacent to it on Crescent Avenue.
The 20-acre tank farm is a temporary layover point for crude oil pumped from the Union Oil terminal, where the Liberian tanker exploded on Dec. 17, 1976. The explosion shook buildings more than 40 miles away and shattered thousands of windows in the harbor area. Oil from the tank farm is piped four miles north to the Union Oil refinery in Wilmington.
The council, which was formed to lobby for the removal of hazardous cargo from populated areas of the harbor, has unsuccessfully pressed for the tank farm's ouster before various commissions and boards and has taken its cause to court. In a case written and prepared by council President Beatrice Atwood Hunt, the group has sued the Harbor Department, which owns the land and has leased it to Union Oil since 1958 under a 30-year agreement. Hunt attended law school for two years but is not an attorney.
The suit, filed in Long Beach Superior Court in June, alleges that the tanks were placed along 22nd Street in 1958 without proper public notice, that they violate the city's zoning laws and that they constitute a public nuisance. The suit seeks a court order that would require the Harbor Department to evict Union Oil as a tenant.
In a court appearance last week, attorneys for the Harbor Department and Union Oil asked Superior Court Judge James M. Sutton Jr. to throw the suit out because, among other things, they said it comes too late.
In documents filed with the court, Assistant City Atty. Patricia A. Clemens said challenges to the conditional-use permits granted to the Harbor Department to operate the tank farm should have been made within 180 days of their approval.
The original conditional-use permit was issued by the city's Planning Commission in March, 1958, when Union Oil erected five tanks on the property. It was amended in 1964 when two tanks were added, and again in May, 1975, when an eighth and ninth tank were built at the farm, according to court documents.
No Appeal Possible
Hunt argued that nobody could have appealed the 1958 permit because it was not properly advertised. She said fighting the additional tanks in 1964 and 1975 would have only reduced the size of the tank farm, not eliminated it.
She said she moved to Crescent Avenue in 1973 and at a public hearing in 1975 she unsuccessfully opposed the two tanks erected that year.
While advising Hunt that her prospects of winning were not good, Sutton denied a motion by an attorney for Union Oil to dismiss the case, opting instead to give the Coastal and Harbor Hazards Council 30 days to address some of the issues raised by the city and Union Oil.
"Don't involve yourself in this morass without further guidance," Sutton told Hunt, advising her to hire an attorney if she intends to continue with the suit. "Quite frankly, I don't think much can be done, but don't take my word for it . . . I don't get paid for advising people anymore."
Lesley M. Vaughn, the attorney representing Union Oil, said after the hearing that the company does not consider the tank farm a danger to the community, and emphasized that it has all necessary permits and approvals.
Vaughn described the suit as "merely an aggravation" and said she will request once again that it be dismissed when the case returns to court next month.
Hunt said the council cannot afford to hire an attorney, especially for a case that does not seek damages. She vowed, however, not to give up on the suit.
Clemens and Harbor Department officials also emphasized that the tank farm meets all legal and safety requirements for the area. The Harbor Department, however, does have long-term plans to move the tank farm and about a half-dozen other hazardous cargo facilities to a proposed landfill island it wants to build in San Pedro Bay.
Fire a Danger
An analysis of the tank farm conducted several years ago by a port consultant indicated that if a major fire should occur at the facility, structures and people as far away as 1,500 feet--which encompasses the $100-million marina complex and homes on Crescent Avenue--could be affected.