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LNG Plan Jeered, Cheered in Oxnard

Residents speaking at two public hearings see either a disaster waiting to happen or a welcome source of energy. Report is due in several months.

December 01, 2004|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

A proposed liquefied natural gas project off the Ventura County coast was blasted Tuesday as a looming danger and lauded as a safe way out of the energy crisis by dozens of speakers at public hearings in Oxnard.

The two meetings drew hundreds of residents concerned about plans for the LNG terminal, known as Cabrillo Port, 14 miles offshore. The project was proposed by minerals company BHP Billiton, Australia's largest corporation.

Many of the public comments are to be addressed in a final environmental report, which is due in several months. The report will then be evaluated by state and federal officials, who could then submit it to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for consideration.

A draft environmental report released last month was generally positive. It concluded that a catastrophic accident at the proposed site in the Santa Barbara Channel would do no harm onshore.

However, a number of Oxnard residents on Tuesday questioned that conclusion.

Irma Lopez, the wife of longtime Oxnard politician Manuel Lopez, decried the location of the terminal off the coast of the blue-collar city as a breach of "environmental justice."

"Accidents do happen," she said. "Terrorism does happen.

"With any data open to interpretation, I hope you err on the side of caution," she told a panel that included representatives from the Coast Guard and the California State Lands Commission, key agencies in determining whether the project moves forward.

Several speakers alluded to a 1977 study of a proposed LNG facility on Oxnard's shoreline. That study envisioned an accident producing a 60-mile-wide cloud of flame, but on Tuesday, a scientist associated with BHP contended the study was invalid.

It "should be relegated to history and not be used for modern decision-making or to influence public opinion," said physicist Ron Koopman, adding that scientific models available in 1977 were "very primitive by today's standards."

Koopman also said that the experts whose research formed the core of the 1977 study have expressed concern about "the misuse" of their work.

At a hearing in March, only a handful of people had anything good to say about the BHP project, which has been opposed by the city councils in Oxnard and Malibu. On Tuesday, however, a number of speakers said they welcomed it as a relatively safe and inexpensive way to secure much-needed energy for California.

Hank Lacayo, a well-known local activist, said the draft environmental report "put my mind at ease" about safety concerns that had been widely raised by opponents.

Lacayo's statement was read by his wife, Leah, because he was ill at home.

However, skeptics said that the proposed terminal has garnered support not because of its merits but because of an intensive public-relations effort.

"We've been inundated with propaganda," Irma Lopez said. "There have been informational meetings at luxurious locations."

In a statement read by an aide, U.S. Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara), echoed the feelings of several environmental groups.

"Our first step should always be to see if we can reduce demand, and I am not convinced we have done that," she said.

Capps asked for a two-month extension of the Dec. 20 deadline for public comment on the 1,200-page report.

Speaking on behalf of the project were John Olsen, the Australian consulate general based in Los Angeles, and representatives from the Oxnard Chamber of Commerce and the Ventura County Economic Development Assn.

Australia has huge reserves of liquefied natural gas and BHP has an "impeccable" safety record, Olsen said.

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