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Unloading of Coal Stirs Controversy at L.A. Harbor : Ship With Warm Cargo Gets Chilly Welcome

August 06, 1987|DEAN MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

Longshoremen began unloading thousands of tons of hot coal from the cargo ship Fort Providence this week, but the troubled vessel received less than a warm welcome at Los Angeles Harbor from City Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores.

Flores, who represents the harbor area, used the vessel's emergency visit to the port to criticize the Los Angeles Harbor Department for allowing "potentially hazardous facilities"--including the so-called "bulk loader" where the coal is being unloaded--to remain in the harbor's predominantly recreational West Channel.

'Inappropriately Located'

"This situation graphically points out how the bulk loader and the chemical and oil storage tanks are inappropriately located in the West Channel," Flores said at a press conference at the gates to the 26-acre bulk-loading facility, which is used to store and load commodities such as coal and petroleum coke.

"The relocation of these facilities is a moderate and reasonable approach to allow industry to handle its normal and emergency business operations, while at the same time protecting the community and other land uses," Flores said.

A Harbor Department official said after the press conference that the port plans to move the bulk loader and a nearby tank farm operated by Union Oil Co. away from the West Channel, which is home to about 2,200 pleasure boats, numerous marinas, the Cabrillo Beach Yacht Club, the Cabrillo Beach recreational area and a youth aquatics camp.

Move Being Planned

Vern Hall, who oversees port expansion, said the port intends to move the facilities to a landfill near Terminal Island within the next five years. Public hearings on portions of the plan, including dredging parts of the harbor, will begin in October, he said.

"It is something that we have said we are going to do for a long time," Hall said.

Flores said she is aware of the plan but that the port is moving too slowly.

The Fort Providence docked at the bulk loader, which is operated for the port by Kaiser International Corp., on Monday after lying at at anchor in Long Beach Harbor for five weeks. The ship's $2-million cargo of coal began heating up last month shortly after it left New Orleans, forcing its captain to suspend a planned voyage to Taiwan.

The coal, loaded during humid weather in New Orleans, retained much of its moisture, preventing the release of heat that normally occurs through evaporation. The cargo became even hotter at sea as it reacted to oxygen in pockets that formed because workers in New Orleans did not pack the load tightly in the ship's holds, officials said.

Portions of the cargo were estimated to be as hot as 160 degrees, about 20 degrees below what fire officials say is the critical point at which the temperature accelerates uncontrollably and eventually ignites. In order to avoid problems at sea, the ship's British operators decided to hire Kaiser International to unload the coal, cool it off and then reload it.

Flores, however, attempted to keep the Fort Providence out of Los Angeles Harbor because of concerns that unloading the coal would create dust and odors and could pose a fire hazard to nearby pleasure boats and port facilities. One of her aides urged the South Coast Air Quality Management District last week to deny Kaiser International's request for a temporary variance from air quality regulations.

The district's hearing board sided with Kaiser International.

At Tuesday's press conference, Flores backed off from her opposition to the unloading, saying that she recognized that it is necessary for the safety of the ship and its crew. But she criticized Kaiser International for refusing to erect a permanent cover over its operations and accused the company of releasing black dust that she said pollutes the air and damages nearby pleasure boats.

Kaiser International President Richard E. Holdaway denied in an interview that his company is the source of the black dust, and said that covering the facility is neither feasible nor safe. He said Flores has surrounded herself with a "group of radical extremists determined to shut us down," a reference to boaters and other San Pedro residents who have complained to the AQMD about the facility. Based on those complaints, the AQMD last spring denied the company two operating permits, but the bulk loader remains open while the denials are appealed.

Flores outlined a motion, which she later introduced at a City Council meeting, that calls on the Harbor Department to "immediately report" to the council's Industry and Economic Development Committee, which Flores heads, with options for relocating the bulk loader and tank farm. The motion also calls on the Harbor Department not to renew leases for the facilities until a relocation plan is approved.

Flores accused the department of delaying plans to move the bulk loader away from the West Channel.

"It is time to put the Harbor Department's feet to the fire," Flores said. "What we are hearing is 'someday. . . . ' Someday is not good enough."

After the press conference, port and fire officials said unloading of the Fort Providence was going smoothly.

Malcolm Webb, manager of Canadian Pacific Ships, a London-based company that operates the vessel, said the company has decided to unload 30,000 of the 58,000 tons of coal aboard. The remaining coal, he said, is already cool enough.

Webb said the cargo should be unloaded, cooled off and reloaded within 15 days. He estimated Canadian Pacific Ships has lost about $1.5 million because of the delay in getting the coal to Taiwan.

But the ship's captain, Michael Caine, said the delay has not been all bad for the vessel's 30-member British crew, which normally spends only a day or two in port.

"They have been going to Disneyland and things like that," Caine said.

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