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California and the West

Huntington Beach Fights Plan for Refinery

Environment: Televangelist seeks to reopen storage tanks and offshore terminal that was site of 1990 oil spill.

September 14, 1998|SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HUNTINGTON BEACH — Residents and city officials are fighting a plan by televangelist Pat Robertson that could reopen the offshore terminal involved in Orange County's disastrous 1990 oil spill.

With memories still fresh of 416,000 gallons of crude oil coating 15 miles of coastline, Huntington Beach is scrambling to keep the terminal and onshore storage tanks closed.

"It was devastating. We just cannot afford to have that happen again," said Mayor Shirley Dettloff, who is also a member of the California Coastal Commission. "We want to find a way that we can stop this facility from reopening."

Robertson, who last year sold his International Family Entertainment Inc. to Rupert Murdoch for $1.9 billion, formed CENCO Refining Company in March to buy the defunct Powerine Oil Refinery in Santa Fe Springs.

The firm also has agreed to buy some assets and leases held by Golden West Refining Co., which operated the Huntington Beach marine terminal and a 20-acre onshore storage facility off Newland Street.

CENCO officials did not respond to repeated requests for interviews.

The plan, said Craig Moyer, a Los Angeles attorney representing CENCO, is to reopen the 50,000-barrel-per-day refinery early next year, using the Huntington Beach terminal to pipe crude oil from oceangoing tankers to the Santa Fe Springs refinery.

However, he said, the company could still decide to procure crude oil from other sources, possibly by using an existing pipeline from a Long Beach terminal.

Residents said company representatives have told them that ships could offload oil at the terminal weekly instead of the monthly pace underway at the time of the 1990 spill.

In that spill, Orange County's worst environmental disaster, the tanker American Trader ran over its anchor as it moored at the offshore facility, puncturing its hull and spewing crude oil that closed Orange County beaches for weeks.

Conflict over the refinery project is focusing on what sort of environmental review would be necessary to reopen facilities that have been inactive for three years.

Moyer said CENCO officials believe that the project does not need to go through a full environmental impact review because the company is buying assets of existing firms that held permits to operate the terminal, pipeline and refinery.

"Powerine was an ongoing operation, so it's CENCO's position that there will have to be an environmental review but that they are not similar to those reviews required of new facilities," Moyer said.

Huntington Beach officials filed formal opposition in August with the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which must extend the lapsed Powerine permit before CENCO can begin operations.

City officials argued that Southern California's air quality would be harmed by the refinery emissions and exhaust from oil-delivery trucks, if they are used.

Businesses and residents near the refinery also filed letters of opposition, citing a history of questionable emissions from the plant.

AQMD officials have no timetable for issuing a decision, said spokesman Bill Kelly.

"We're studying that now," he said. "There's also a possibility that we may hold a public meeting to give people further chance to raise any concerns they might have."

For some Huntington Beach residents, the rusting and partially dismantled oil storage tanks are the key concern.

Michael P. Dolder, acting assistant city manager and fire chief for Huntington Beach, said that of six tanks at the site, only the three largest were used for storage, each holding about 6.8-million barrels of crude oil.

Golden West began dismantling the tanks, which haven't been used since 1995, earlier this year. But city officials ordered work to be halted because contractors failed to provide demolition plans or a program for dealing with contaminated soil.

"It's just an eyesore," said Dana Sirdenis, 60, who has lived across the street from the tanks for nearly three decades. "They haven't kept them up for years."

Up the street, David and Teresa Guido said they're afraid that resumed use of the tanks could endanger their neighborhood.

In the past, fumes from the tanks wafted through the streets, they said. And they worry that a strong earthquake would crumple the aging tanks, potentially exposing the neighborhood to crude oil.

"I'd rather have the tanks sit there and rot," said Guido, president of the Huntington Beach Coastal Community Assn., formed in July to oppose CENCO's plans.

Santa Fe Springs officials have signed off on the project, which could mean more than 300 jobs for the industry-heavy city, after extracting promises from CENCO to make safety improvements.

"They feel they can meet those standards, so the city has agreed to extend their conditional-use permit," said Santa Fe Springs Fire Chief Norbert Schnabel.

Schnabel said because the refinery has existed since the mid-1950s, the city had fewer objections to reopening it than officials in other cities might have had.

"Not many communities want to start a new refinery in their area, or have a place capable of starting it," Schnabel said.

Schnabel also expressed few concerns about CENCO's plans to use a modified form of hydrofluoric acid to boost octane in gasoline.

The compound has been targeted by environmental groups and federal regulators as among the most toxic chemicals used in industry.

Safety concerns led the city of Torrance in 1989 to file a lawsuit against Mobil Oil Corp. over the compound's use in that city. Mobil eventually agreed to use a modified form at its refinery.

The modified version planned for the Powerine site reportedly poses less of a threat to public health.

Schnabel said the city hired a consultant to review the effects of an accidental release of the modified compound.

"You can measure the off-site consequences in feet rather than miles," Schnabel said. "We feel the operation up here is going to be about as safe as we can make it."

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