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Beverly Hills Oil Rig Operator to Pay Fine

Venoco agrees to $10,000 penalty for pollution violations at high school campus. The company also will install monitoring equipment.

October 21, 2003|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

The operator of the oil rig at Beverly Hills High School has agreed to pay a $10,000 fine and install $60,000 worth of monitoring equipment to settle three air pollution violations issued earlier this year by Southland air quality officials.

Venoco Inc. reached the agreement with the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which in turn agreed to allow the Carpinteria-based company to resume full operation at the site.

"In recent months, students, community members, school and city officials have expressed concerns about potential emissions from the oil facility and have asked for continuous monitoring at the site," Barry R. Wallerstein, the AQMD's executive officer, said in a statement late Friday. "This responds to that request."

Jody Kleinman, the mother of an 11th-grader at Beverly Hills High and two graduates of the school, said Venoco should not be in charge of collecting its own data and, particularly, of reporting its own emissions, as the settlement requires.

"This is a small slap on the wrist," Kleinman said. "Venoco is probably laughing."

The campus oil operation has been the subject of intense scrutiny since February, when environmental crusader Erin Brockovich and attorney Ed Masry revealed that they were preparing a lawsuit against the city of Beverly Hills, the Beverly Hills Unified School District and three oil companies, including Venoco.

Masry subsequently filed 685 claims against the city, many on behalf of Beverly Hills High alumni who have been or are being treated for cancers. Masry and Brockovich said they blamed the cancers on polluted air in and around the school's athletic fields and bleachers. They said they suspected the source of the bad air to be Venoco's oil rig.

The firm has also filed three lawsuits on behalf of 439 plaintiffs.

AQMD officials said their own testing has revealed no abnormal levels of air pollution at the site. City and district officials said they also have conducted soil and air tests that reveal no connection between the oil operation and the illnesses mentioned in the claims and suits.

A Venoco vice president, Michael G. Edwards, said the settlement calls for continuous monitoring of the site and will provide data that "will probably be of great relief to people who have concerns."

Under the settlement, Venoco also agreed not to vent oil field gas into the atmosphere and to develop a procedure for notifying the district in the event of any such release.

It must install the continuous air quality monitors within six months.

Kleinman countered that her child would still be practicing soccer on the athletic fields near the rig yet parents and students would be notified only after the fact should an emission occur. "I think the settlement is inadequate," she said, "and it really doesn't address the issue of the potential danger our kids are facing on the field every day."

Venoco has operated the oil rig, shrouded in panels painted with brightly colored flowers, sporadically in recent months. Edwards said the company plans to step up production, working up to 500 barrels of oil and about 350,000 cubic feet of gas a day.

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