By Janet Gunter, Community Activist and Member of the San Pedro Homeowners Association
The recent large oil spill at Refugio Beach in Santa Barbara shines a major spotlight on the deficient safety record of Plains All American Pipeline (the owners and operators of Rancho LPG LLC in San Pedro and also illuminates the major “void” in regulations and oversight of the energy industry itself. Plains All American Pipeline and its subsidiaries have been responsible for over 200 spills, leaks and violations over the past several years. The Environmental Protection Agency ordered Plains to pay $41 million in remediation costs associated with 10 pipeline spills occurring in Texas, Kansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma between 2004 and 2007 that wound up putting 6,510 barrels of crude—273,420 gallons—into nearby waterways. The culprit was typically corroded pipeline pipes.
This past year, a Plains pipeline ruptured in an industrial neighborhood in Atwater Village, Los Angeles, causing crude to spray 40 feet into the air. People working at a medical store nearby got so sick from the fumes they had themselves hospitalized. In that instance, 450 barrels escaped. The event was reported to the authorities by residents. The facility became aware of it after being notified by the fire department.
Even more incriminating is information provided by Plains All American in its most recent Securities and Exchange Commission report. That report itemizes $82 million in environmental liabilities. The EPA fined the company $6 million for a 120-barrel spill in Bay Springs, Miss., in February 2013. The Canadian government assessed the company $15 million in cleanup costs for two spills in June 2013. And, this February, the Canadian National Energy Board Audit levied a $76 million penalty on the company for slipshod environmental safety practices. These EPA and Canadian financial penalties represent less than a simple “slap on the wrist” to Plains Corp. According to the SEC, the company’s net revenue this past year was $1.39 billion.
Plains continues to move their business forward as if they are stalwart guardians of public safety and the environment. Harbor Area residents concerned about the high risk being posed to them daily by the Plains-owned Rancho Liquefied Petroleum Gas storage facility being operated in their back yards, have been repeatedly chastised by Rancho LPG’s manager, Ron Conrow, as being “hysterical fanatics.” The mantra by Rancho LPG/Plains is that they are in “full compliance” and therefore, “safe.” However, as all the other previous Plains disasters have proven, “in compliance” is a long way from being “safe.” While the results from an oil spill are horrible, an explosion and resulting inferno from Rancho’s massive 25 million gallons of butane and propane gases has the potential to kill thousands within a 3- mile radius, and to decimate the entire Harbor Area, including the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
In truth, both the operators and our government alike have long tried to dispel public fears with blue smoke and mirrors employed to provide a false sense of security. Unfortunately, most people have bought the lies. It is much easier than investigating and taking action on a most unpleasant and unnerving truth. Perhaps one of the most disappointing discoveries we’ve made is the reliance of the EPA on the “energy industry” itself for their regulation and oversight. The “Environmental Protection Agency” is in reality taking its cues and direction from the American Petroleum Institute. The API threatens to sue anyone or anything that attempts to restrict or limit its business potential. Obviously, there is only one end goal of the API…and that is the health and well-being of their charter members not the general public. It is the powerful influence of this industry that has encouraged a political blind eye to the unacceptable hazards that threaten the innocent public.
Just as the Santa Barbara County Fire Marshall was ill-equipped to conduct proper inspections of the Plains pipeline that ruptured, so also is the Los Angeles City Fire Department (under the Certified Unified Program Agency) inexperienced and unqualified to inspect and respond to the overwhelmingly improperly sited and geologically vulnerable conditions at Rancho LPG. While the EPA regulations for this facility have allowed for significant under reporting of blast radius, have accepted the fact that its tanks (while sitting in a documented earthquake rupture zone of magnitude 7.3 potential) are built to a seismic substandard of 5.5 potential; have acknowledged that the soil that the entire facility sits upon is identified by the U.S. Geological Survey as “landslide” and “liquefaction” areas; have allowed for the American Petroleum Institute required setbacks of 200 feet to be reduced to far less than that on three sides; and that NO consideration was ever given to the fact that pre-existing homes and schools lie within 1,000 feet of the highly explosive site, God given common sense SCREAMS the outrage of this violation of public safety.
So, as you listen to the banter of the Plains/Rancho LPG management and of your own government officials as they declare their “righteous” pleas of performance to safety, recall the many recent disasters that we have experienced that prove their words meaningless. Remember the explosions of San Bruno, West, Texas, Tavares, Fla., Lac Megantic, Canada, and even Fukushima. All of these explosions and catastrophes are attributed to situations that were in “compliance.” All were touted as being “safe.” Unlike many of the catastrophes described above, there are several glowing, neon red warning flags being waved at the Rancho LPG site. Paying attention to those flags now, in advance of the looming tragedy, will save many, many lives. But, doing that means that the public needs to step up. Whether it is the expected “big quake,” a terrorism event, infrastructure failure, or human error, the deadly consequences at Rancho LPG are far too great to ignore. The opportunities are many…the disaster deliverable at any time now. We are simply playing a game of “beat the clock.”
Call or write your mayor, city councilman, senator and congressional representative now.