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Council approves funds to shut port chemical facility

The action fulfills a 6-year-old promise to increase safety in the nearby neighborhoods.

August 16, 2007|David Zahniser | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles City Council voted Wednesday to spend $17 million to eliminate a 14-acre chemical terminal at the Port of Los Angeles, delivering on promises made nearly six years ago to improve safety of nearby neighborhoods in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

The council gave the Port of Los Angeles permission to buy out the remaining 18 years of a lease held by Westway Terminal Co., which operates 136 tanks on the San Pedro side of the harbor's main channel.

Westway and the port reached the deal after harbor officials agreed to assume the cost of cleaning up the soil underneath the tanks, which contain various chemicals including aviation fuel and paraffin, a wax used to assemble cardboard boxes.

Although port officials declined to reveal how much the cleanup would cost, council members received estimates of $15 million to $36 million.

"Until we clear the site, we won't know the cost of cleanup," said Geraldine Knatz, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles.

Fears of a major chemical explosion have existed in San Pedro since at least 1976, when the fuel tanker Sansinena exploded inside the harbor, killing nine people and injuring dozens more. That explosion, which ripped the 810-foot tanker in two, was compared to an earthquake and shattered the windows of homes as far as 20 miles away.

Worries were voiced anew in 2001, when residents near the port began arguing that the chemical tanks could become a target for terrorists.

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn and Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) called for relocation of the tanks while touring the harbor in the weeks after Sept. 11. But negotiations bogged down in subsequent years, with New Orleans-based Westway demanding as much as $200 million to terminate its lease. Westway stores the chemicals before they are shipped in and out of the harbor via truck and rail.

Hahn said the removal of Westway would address not only San Pedro's safety concerns but also would clear the way for a future leg of the port's 8.7-mile waterfront promenade -- a walkway and bicycle path that is supposed to stretch south along the waterfront from the Vincent Thomas Bridge.

"The community has been waiting for this for a long, long time," Hahn said.

Although Westway has until February 2009 to vacate the premises, the company is expected to leave by next summer. Westway representatives said Wednesday that they would terminate operations at the Port of Los Angeles because they were unable to find another site in the ports of Long Beach and L.A.

"While the agreement was reached under the threat of condemnation, all the parties acted with the overall best interests of the port, its neighbors and the city in mind," Westway President Wayne Driggers said in a statement.

Wednesday's vote comes nearly three decades after the Port of Los Angeles created a plan to move chemical storage facilities away from residential neighborhoods and onto "energy island" -- a 590-acre landfill added to Terminal Island.

The plan, adopted in 1979, was shelved as harbor officials decided to pursue a more lucrative deal -- leasing the space for overseas shipping lines that transport 20-foot containers to and from Asia.

Although harbor officials hope to eventually move a marine research center onto the site, Knatz said the department's first priority was to take away the tanks.

"We could not move the waterfront plan forward until we had dealt with the past because this had festered for years," she said.

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