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Project Foes Cite Threat From Ammonia

Environment: Report on much-delayed development should consider nearby power plant, they contend.


First there was the discovery of waste oil polluting the 91-acre property. Then came the unearthing of a rare plant that had to be protected. Mucked-up paperwork caused another delay.

Now, as proponents of an upscale housing development in Oxnard prepare to take their plan--nearly a decade in the making--to the California Coastal Commission, environmentalists say there's just one more problem: Ammonia stored at the nearby Mandalay power plant could explode into a toxic plume in the event of a disaster.

Foes of the 337-home North Shore at Mandalay Bay development say Oxnard City Council members--who OKd the project last week--overlooked the potential hazard and are pushing for officials to address the situation in a supplemental environmental report.

Activists with the Environmental Coalition, Sierra Club and other local groups vow to continue the fight at the Coastal Commission if the city doesn't reconsider its decision, said Ted Cartee, an Environmental Coalition board member.

"After they've gone so far, to have it pointed out that they've overlooked something, there is a natural knee-jerk reaction to say it's not significant," he said. "I want to save lives first and save money second."

But city leaders, including Councilman Dean Maulhardt, said they believe that the ammonia issue has been addressed and don't see the need to further delay the project--the largest coastal development in the county in eight years.

"It's a little frustrating," Maulhardt said. "At some point, we have to bring closure to this and let it go to the next step."

Mayor Manuel Lopez agreed.

"To bring out information at the last meeting in an eight-year project didn't carry as much weight if it had brought it out at some other point," he said.

The project's developer, Newport Beach-based North Shore Properties, began plans for the site in 1989.

The project was set back first by oil pollution found at the site, then by a lawsuit that environmentalists filed over about 500 milk-vetch plants apparently dumped on the property many years ago. The plant was once considered extinct, and its discovery prompted another delay as environmentalists and North Shore worked out an agreement that would protect the species.

In May, a county planning agency rescinded approval of the project because the city failed to list a landowner on its annexation application.

Ron Smith, a North Shore partner, said the latest concerns about the ammonia are unfounded.

"There isn't a problem," he said. "The reason the issue of the ammonia tank wasn't in the [environmental document] was because it didn't pose anything significant."

The ammonia, stored in a 14,000-gallon tank at the Mandalay facility, has been used for years to reduce smog-forming emissions, said Dick Baldwin, executive officer of the county's Air Pollution Control District. The substance is known as aqueous ammonia because it is a 30% ammonia solution in water.

The power plant in July 1999 filed a report with the Oxnard Fire Department outlining the "worst-case scenario" of an ammonia tank rupture, which shows that a toxic cloud could travel about four-tenths of a mile, said Thomas Snowdon, plant manager.

The tank is covered with steel beams and is reinforced to protect against earthquake damage, Snowdon said.

"We are very conscientious of the hazardous nature of the material," he said.

But even if a plane crash or major earthquake caused a spill, the airborne plume wouldn't touch residents living across the street in the new development, said Tony Locacciato of Agoura Hills-based Impact Sciences, which prepared the environmental report.

Cartee disagrees, saying the plume could go much farther in certain weather conditions, such as the foggy marine layer common on the Ventura County coast. He also stresses that a separate analysis is required because the energy plant's report did not take into account the residential development.

"They are referring to a plan done a year ago by the [plant owner]," Cartee said. "The energy plant has done its part, but the developer and the city have not done their part."

Alan Sanders, conservation chairman of the Los Padres chapter of the Sierra Club, said if the ammonia issue can't be worked out at the Coastal Commission, a lawsuit could follow.

"What they're doing is illegal," he said.

Nevertheless, Smith said he is feeling good about taking his beleaguered project to the state commission.

No date has been set for a hearing, but Smith said he is hoping the project will be taken up at the agency's November meeting in Los Angeles.

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