Rancho LPG Busted By EPA

  • 03/21/2013
  • Terelle Jerricks

Multiple Violations of Clean Air Act Cited
By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor

On March 14, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent a “Notification of Potential Enforcement Action” to Rancho LPG, for multiple, diverse violations of the Clean Air Act, including fundamental inadequacies with its risk management planning.

According to the EPA, Rancho “failed to develop and implement an emergency response program for the purpose of protecting public health and the environment, including at a minimum, procedures for informing the public and emergency response agencies in the event of a release.”

Responses from community activists ranged from elation to skepticism, while local Congress members expressed guarded optimism.

“EPA has made serious allegations,” Rep. Henry Waxman said.

Congresswoman Janice Hahn saluted, “EPA’s readiness to take strong action” while reiterating her position that “these tanks must be relocated.”

“I’m delighted,” said a former oil industry consultant Connie Rutter.

But Jeanne Lacombe, president of the Rancho Riviera Homeowners’ Association, was more skeptical, saying, “I don’t really know whether it’s going to have any teeth to it.”

Then, late Monday, March 18, after the initial version of this story was turned in, the EPA belatedly answered questions put to them over the weekend. The responses cast the story in a somewhat different light—that of a prolonged and troubling investigation, shielded from public scrutiny while the EPA worked with Rancho behind closed doors to correct almost all of the violations.

“Nevertheless, the companies are still responsible for any violations found during inspections that resulted in all six allegations,” EPA spokesperson Nahal Mogharabi explained.

Yet, the EPA stood by silently for years, while Rancho blatantly misrepresented itself as fully in compliance with all applicable rules and regulations.

Rancho’s failure to plan for protecting the public goes right to the heart of long-standing activist concerns that Rancho has never seriously prioritized public safety. Earlier indications of this lack of concern for the public include broken promises to hold safety drills that would involve the public, and broken promises to provide insurance information demonstrating that Rancho could cover the cost to nearby residents and businesses of a potential disaster.

EPA’s investigation of Rancho has taken almost three years. Onsite inspections on April 14, 2010 and January 11, 2011 were specifically cited in the letter, along with “subsequent information requests.”

“Based upon the information obtained during our investigation, EPA is prepared to initiate a civil administration action against the Companies to ensure compliance with federal law and assess a penalty,” the letter read. “EPA anticipates filing a Complaint in this matter on or about May 15, 2013, unless the Companies first advise EPA, with supporting information, of substantial reasons not to proceed as planned.”

“EPA has made serious allegations in this matter and if they are true, then San Pedro Terminal is failing to comply with the law,” Waxman said. “The terminal must be brought into compliance with the law immediately and held accountable for any lapses.”

EPA’s letter cited possible fines of $37,500 a day.

“I am encouraged to see the EPA signal its seriousness on an issue that is so important to the community I serve,” Hahn said. “The families who live and send their children to school near these tanks deserve to know that we will not tolerate anything less than total compliance with the federal law.

“While I continue to believe that these tanks must be relocated, the EPA’s readiness to take strong action to hold Rancho LPG to federal safety standards is an important step in the right direction.”

Two other problems identified with emergence response planning were:

(1) “the Facility’s emergency response plan …was not coordinated with the community emergency response plan” and

(2) “The Facility failed to clearly indicate to their own employees whether they would be emergency responders or would evacuate.”

Rutter had long been critical of Rancho’s risk management plan, arguing that it didn’t make sense in terms of the facility, and even suggesting that it had been cobbled together based on a plan developed for a dissimilar Texas facility.

EPA’s letter also cited five other problem areas where violations had occurred.

These include:

  • “The Companies failed to identify and assess its rail storage area as a process for inclusion in its Risk Management Plan…
  • “The Companies failed to adequately evaluate potential seismic stresses on the support structure for the emergency flare in accordance with design codes.”
  • “The Companies did not appropriately address the consequences of a loss of the city water system for fire suppression in the event of an earthquake.”
  • “The Companies failed to inspect Tank 1 according to a timetable set forth in API [American Petroleum Institute] Standard 653.”
  • “The Companies failed to ensure that the drain pipe located in the base of the containment basin and the valve located near Gaffey Street were included in the mechanical integrity program.”
  • “I’m overjoyed,” Rutter said. “I would dance…. This is the most positive thing we have had happen so far.”

But Lacombe was more focused on the limited nature of the violations EPA cited. The drain pipe violation paled in comparison to the larger issue that the impound basin can’t contain the butane, which readily turns into a gas, she noted. She also called the potential loss of city water in an earthquake “kind of pointless,” saying, “Any amount of water that they could pump over the fire would be pointless, because butane won’t burn out. It keeps burning, because it’s such a high temperature.”

Indeed, Rutter has repeatedly argued that the mandated safety procedures are all wrong for the properties of the gases involved. But she saw the EPA’s enforcement glass as half-full, rather than half-empty.

“I really have to credit [EPA enforcement officer] Mary Wesling, because the regulations and the laws are in such a mess,” Rutter said. “All the other politicians we’ve talked to, and regulators, they keep saying there’s nothing we can do, there’s nothing we can do, and she has found a way to do something, which I think is tremendous.”

The regulations may not have enough teeth in them, as Lacombe rightly worries. But EPA’s enforcement action has changed the policy and political environment, undermining Rancho’s long-standing efforts to portray its record as spotless and its critics as ill-informed know-nothings.

“They’ve actually said that we’re basically crazy,” Lacombe said of Rancho. “Really, they said, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re just lying. You’re making up stories.’ They’re trying to portray us as a bunch of crazy environmental wackos…. But that never works. It’s easy to look up on wiki[pedia] the properties of butane. It’s easy to see that the public isn’t safe.”

And now the EPA has officially validated what community activists have been saying for years—or in some cases, decades. The facility clearly has not been perfectly safe and well-run as its operators have claimed.

Whatever happens next, that’s a bell that can’t be unrung.

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