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Residents Decry Plan for Gas Platform

Government officials are urged to reject a proposed facility off the Ventura County coast.

March 16, 2004|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

Dozens of upset Oxnard residents urged state and federal officials Monday to kill an Australian company's plans for a liquefied natural gas facility 14 miles off the Ventura County coast.

The comments came at a session designed to pinpoint local concerns about the project, which, according to developers, could supply California with 10% of the natural gas it needs to fuel power plants and heat homes.

But to most of the more than 200 residents at the afternoon meeting, the plant's purported benefits would pale beside its perceived dangers: terrorism, massive clouds of flame, environmental havoc in the waters off Channel Islands National Park, plunging property values and soaring public expense.

"What are you thinking?" angrily demanded Deirdre Frank, an attorney who lives in Oxnard. "What are we even doing here?"

At issue was the proposal by BHP Billiton to construct an LNG plant on a platform anchored to the ocean floor, 2,900 feet below.

Cruising from Australia, tankers filled with natural gas in liquid form would pump their cargo into the plant. There, it would be converted into vapor and sent ashore through a new pipeline connecting with the Southern California Gas Co.'s massive web of existing underground lines.

On Monday, officials from the Coast Guard and the State Lands Commission -- key agencies in determining the project's future -- took notes on neighbors' objections so they could be considered during an environmental review.

A similar meeting will be held at Malibu High School at 6:30 p.m. today.

With the federal government encouraging the importation of clean-burning LNG to bolster sagging U.S. supplies, skeptics in the crowd saw the meetings as a public-relations exercise with a predetermined outcome. The BHP Billiton project is one of two deep-sea LNG terminals proposed off the Ventura County coast, and one of half a dozen around the United States.

Gordon Cota, a commercial fisherman for 33 years, warned that accidents at sea happen despite everyone's best intent, and a devastating LNG accident would be possible despite the reassurances of consultants.

"I have a worn-out back," he said, "and a worn-out attitude about environmental reviews."

The safety of the LNG plant, the tankers supplying it and the pipelines leading from it were far and away the crowd's biggest concerns. A number of speakers cited an environmental report commissioned by the city of Oxnard when an onshore LNG facility was proposed there in 1977. The study forecast that as many as 70,000 people could die in a cloud of flame if an LNG tanker spilled its contents.

"Lives should trump economics," said Oxnard Mayor Manuel Lopez, who was a city planning commissioner during the previous LNG debate. "With 900 miles of coastline in California, it should be possible to find a place where people won't be put at risk."

Tim Riley, an Oxnard attorney who has rallied LNG opponents through a website devoted to the issue, sounded the same theme. He pointed to the January blast at an Algerian LNG plant that killed 27, and to the 1944 LNG explosion that decimated downtown Cleveland and caused 128 deaths.

"LNG does not harmlessly evaporate into the sky, as I hear ad nauseam in press releases," he said. "It can become an inferno and incinerate communities."

Some scientists have disputed that assessment, contending that the behavior of LNG clouds has been more thoroughly studied since Oxnard's 1977 bombshell report. Offshore LNG accidents would pose no risk to coastal communities, they maintained.

But Riley said he didn't buy such claims.

"We're being presented with a guinea-pig project," he said. "What's going to happen 10 years from now? Will they say, 'Oops! We made a mistake!' ?"

Riley also objected to the Coast Guard being given the responsibility for determining the project's safety -- especially from terrorism.

"You're between a rock and a hard place," he told Joe Angelo, the Coast Guard's director of standards. "No American military person will ever admit they can't protect America."

The meetings were not intended to provide answers, but there were plenty of questions: What would happen if the BHP platform ripped away from its anchors and headed for shore? What kind of liability claims would Americans have against an Australian corporation? Why put an industrial pipeline beneath environmentally valuable Ormond Beach? Would the same project be considered near a town more upscale than Oxnard?

Expressions of support for the project were rare. Mike Mizrahi, a spokesman for Southern California Gas, said his company was not taking a position on the project but advocated "the concept" of LNG. He also sought to allay fears by pointing out that his company aggressively monitors its 45,000 miles of pipeline for leaks and ruptures.

Representatives of BHP Billiton did not offer public comment at the meeting, although they were available for questions at an "open house" preceding it. In an interview, BHP spokeswoman Kathi Hann said the crowd's safety concerns would be addressed in the environmental report, which is to be released this summer.

"When it's all said and done, this is a $600-billion project," she said, including the money BHP must invest in tankers as well as the offshore facility. "We wouldn't put those kinds of assets on the line if we thought it was unsafe."

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