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Campus Oil Rig Closed Over Benzene Emissions

Air quality panel denies permit after tests show elevated levels in a new piece of equipment.

May 02, 2003|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

The company that operates the oil rig at Beverly Hills High School said Thursday that it has temporarily shut down the operation because a piece of equipment was found to be emitting the toxic chemical benzene in amounts exceeding those allowed under air-quality regulations.

The oil rig has been under scrutiny in the wake of allegations by Erin Brockovich and lawyer Ed Masry that polluted air from the rig has caused a high rate of cancer among former students. On Monday they filed two dozen claims against the Beverly Hills school system and the city in anticipation of filing lawsuits, they said.

Six tests by the South Coast Air Quality Management District found no evidence of unusually high levels of toxic pollutants.

However, Barry R. Wallerstein, the environmental board's executive officer, said benzene beyond allowed amounts did show up in recent tests of a relatively new piece of equipment on the rig that is designed to strip carbon dioxide from natural gas. As a result, the agency has denied a permit for the equipment to Venoco Inc., the small company in Carpinteria that operates the rig.

Michael G. Edwards, a Venoco vice president, said that without that piece of equipment, the company was unable to produce natural gas that met the specifications of Southern California Gas Co., its customer. As a result, the company decided to shut down the operation and reapply for a permit for its so-called amine unit.

The environmental panel noted that allowable cancer risk for cancer-causing compounds such as benzene is 10 in 1 million. The standard assumes that an individual breathing the contaminants 24 hours a day for 70 years would have a 10 in 1 million risk of contracting cancer.

"Obviously, a student is going to be exposed for a vastly shorter period of time," said Sam Atwood, an agency spokesman.

The cancer risk from the benzene emanating from the piece of equipment at the rig was found to be "in the neighborhood of 40 in a million or so," Wallerstein said.

Atwood said the current problem did not negate previous findings that the school's air was not particularly polluted.

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