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San Pedro residents revive debate about gas storage tanks' safety

Studies by a consultant and USC graduate student come to more worrying conclusions than a company-funded report about the potential for devastation in an emergency at a San Pedro butane facility.

October 09, 2011|By Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times
  • The Rancho LPG butane storage tanks are near shopping areas, playing fields and several schools in San Pedro. The facility is one of the oldest and largest of its kind.
The Rancho LPG butane storage tanks are near shopping areas, playing fields… (Christina House, For The…)

Melissa Palma never thought much about the huge gas storage tanks perched on a hillside near the San Pedro home she and her husband settled into 18 years ago.

Only recently she learned that the domed, 40-year-old, circular, steel structures contain up to 25 million gallons of highly flammable butane — what some neighbors and public officials say are the makings of a potential catastrophe.

"I was very, very shocked," Palma said. "It's so bizarre that I never knew about this."

Energized in part by last year's natural gas pipeline explosion in the Bay Area that killed eight people and leveled a swath of homes, residents of L.A.'s tight-knit port community have revived a long-simmering controversy over the safety of one of the largest and oldest above-ground fuel storage facilities of its kind in the U.S.

The emotional debate involves wildly different scenarios of the devastation that could be caused by a fire, explosion or terrorist attack at the 20-acre facility — and something more.

Revelations of outdated construction standards and lax government oversight in the San Bruno pipeline tragedy and other recent disasters have shaken residents' faith in official assurances that the tanks have been inspected, tested and are safe.

"We live with the misconception that government and private companies are looking out for public safety. Look at San Bruno, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and what Hurricane Katrina did to the levees in New Orleans," said Janet Schaaf-Gunter of San Pedro and Peninsula Homeowners United. "These tanks need to be moved immediately."

State, federal and Los Angeles Fire Department records show the site meets all regulatory requirements, and its firefighting system was recently inspected and recertified. The facility's owner, Rancho LPG Holdings, a unit of Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline, says the 80-foot-tall tanks are well-maintained and equipped with an array of safety measures, including monitors, sprinkler systems, automatic shut-off valves, and dikes to contain a gas spill.

Although hundreds of people have been killed by conflagrations at large liquefied-petroleum-storage facilities in other countries, officials stress there have been no catastrophic failures at similar propane and butane storage sites in the United States.

Still, residents, school officials and city officials in nearby Rancho Palos Verdes have pressed local and state agencies — unsuccessfully thus far — to seek a court-supervised assessment of the installation's safety and the losses that could occur under various disaster scenarios.

They note that homes, built before the tanks, are located about 1,000 feet from the site. Also nearby are an office park, a Home Depot, a Target, a complex of playing fields, and several schools.

"I am concerned," said Doreen J. Steinbach, principal of Taper Avenue Elementary School, which overlooks the Rancho site and has about 700 students. "My priority is safety first for the students here. I don't like that the tanks are there, but it's not my job to take a political stance."

The worst risks include fires that heat the storage tanks until they fail and explode, leaking gas that catches fire in the dike system or escaping gas that vaporizes into a giant cloud that can explode.

Community activists have gathered a trove of historical and regulatory documents showing, among other things, that the city permitted the original owner to build the tanks under industrial zoning dating to World War II. Other city records and geological maps show the tanks are very close to the active Palos Verdes fault, in an area known for methane gas and unstable ground.

Critics cite a 1,242-page federal report issued more than 30 years ago questioning the safety of gas storage sites like the one in San Pedro. It cast doubt on the adequacy of local building codes for such projects and recommended all new facilities be built underground away from populated areas.

About the same time, the California Public Utilities Commission questioned the earthquake safety of the site. But a recent company-funded study states that the facility meets state seismic codes and was built to withstand a massive earthquake. The report says a slope failure behind the tanks would not damage the facility and the chance of soil liquefaction due to an earthquake is "nil" because of dense sand deposits and a low water table at the site.

Much of the controversy now revolves around recent, dramatically different predictions of the damage that a fire or explosion at the facility could cause.

A consulting firm hired by a San Pedro neighborhood association concluded last year that significant damage would extend as far as 6.8 miles from the site in the most catastrophic blast. That would cover most of San Pedro and part of downtown Long Beach.

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