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Military to Continue Talks on Gas Facility

Camp Pendleton commander's opposition to an LNG terminal is overridden.

June 15, 2004|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

In an unusual move, Pentagon officials are promising to cooperate with ChevronTexaco as it studies whether to build a gas terminal at or near Camp Pendleton, overruling the base's commanding general, who strongly opposed the project.

High-level Marine and Navy officials said Monday that talks with ChevronTexaco would continue on building a liquefied natural gas terminal on or offshore from the West Coast's largest Marine training base.

Their comments contradict those of Camp Pendleton's commanding general, who wrote state officials last month that the Marines opposed the company's plans because they would interfere with important military training.

"The base commander did not correctly enunciate the Marine Corps' and Department of the Navy's position, which is to work with ChevronTexaco," said H.T. Johnson, assistant secretary of the Navy for installations and environment, in a telephone interview Monday.

The company is reviewing several sites at Camp Pendleton, including one near the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station at the northern end of the 200-square-mile base. One approach being considered is to have tankers carrying LNG dock at an offshore platform, with the gas to be processed there and then piped on shore, Johnson said.

Environmentalists fear that an LNG terminal would mar the picturesque coastline, the last major piece of undeveloped coastal land in Southern California. The area's wide beaches are popular with surfers, and the coastal hills are home to rare plants, animals and wildlife.

Energy companies are scrutinizing the California coast in hopes of building the first LNG terminal on the West Coast. Community concerns over safety and security forced the cancellation of two projects, in Vallejo and Eureka, and more opposition has surfaced over two other potential sites, in Long Beach and Ventura County.

Some environmentalists contend that too many safety questions remain unanswered about LNG, a highly flammable form of gas that has been chilled and condensed so that it can be shipped via tanker from gas fields overseas.

They said that fears of potential terrorist attacks forced a temporary halt to LNG shipments through Boston Harbor after the Sept. 11 attacks, and that those shipments will be halted again during the Democratic National Convention in Boston next month. Four LNG terminals now operate in the nation, but only one, just outside of Boston, is in a highly populated area.

The siting of an LNG facility next to the San Onofre plant "raises obvious concerns about terrorism," said Joel Reynolds, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "After 9/11, this is an issue of paramount concern in the siting of any major industrial facility. An LNG project is no exception."

The Camp Pendleton site attracted public attention only last week, due to a terse May 18 letter to the California Lands Commission from Maj. Gen. W.G. Bowdon.

"As the current commander of this installation, I am unequivocally opposed to the establishment of a commercial LNG facility on or near the coastline of this amphibious training base," Bowdon wrote.

"The presence of an LNG facility at this installation, irrespective of whether it's on land or offshore, would degrade Camp Pendleton's ability to accomplish its primary mission," Bowdon wrote. "Officials at Marine Corps Headquarters in Washington, D.C., also share this concern. Accordingly, please put the Marine Corps on record as being adamantly opposed to any such project .... "

Since a June 8 article in The Times about Bowdon's letter, officials in Washington have issued a letter and a press release saying that Marine officials are continuing talks with ChevronTexaco.

"The Marine Corps does not object to any LNG industry assessment to site a facility in the vicinity of Camp Pendleton," Lt. Gen. Richard L. Kelly, the Marines' deputy commandant for installations and logistics, wrote to The Times.

He added: "Any final decision to allow siting of an LNG facility in the vicinity of Camp Pendleton must be based upon a thorough assessment and mitigation of potential impacts on readiness sustainment, safety, security and compatibility with Marine Corps training."

When asked about the seeming discrepancy between the letters from Bowdon and Kelly, Johnson said Monday that high-level officials in Washington had received briefings about the project that were not communicated to local Marine officers.

He said he was familiar with the project, as was Raymond DuBois, deputy undersecretary for installations and environment at the Department of Defense.

"Mr. DuBois and I have talked about this many times, and we will do what's right" in terms of appropriate sites, he said. One possible site is close to Red Beach, an important training area, while the site near San Onofre is used less frequently for training, he said.

"We're concerned about the closeness to San Onofre, but that's a safety issue between the Department of Energy and others," he said.

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