Oil Loses Round

Neighbors for a Safe Environment (NASE) won a round April 18 in its ongoing battle with an oil company that wants to expand operations at a site in the Pico-Robertson area.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Yaffe announced that he would issue an order that will force the City of Los Angeles to revoke approval of the environmental impact report (EIR) that Breitburn Energy Company needs to proceed with the expansion.

"We need to have people understand that we are not powerless and [not] just a little group of people fighting a big oil company and losing," said NASE’s Rae Drazin, who has worked to muster community support amid seeming apathy toward the cause. "We can do it, and that is something the community should know."

Joel Moskowitz, NASE’s attorney, said the judge will issue his order after a 10-day period during which Breitburn can comment upon a draft submitted by NASE. If the judge signs the order, the city will be forced to revoke approval of the EIR, and Breitburn will have to cease construction on the site at the corner of Pico Boulevard and and Doheny Drive.

Breitburn public relations consultant Howard Sunkin of Cerrell Associates said the company is awaiting finalization of the order before it determines its course of action.

"Breitburn is looking at its options," he said. "This isn’t a victory for NASE, it’s a victory against the environment," he said, maintaining that the proposed improvements to the site would eliminate most of the toxins currently emitted.

Judge Yaffe found the EIR unsatisfactory in its analysis of noise issues, saying he was not convinced neighbors would not be disturbed by pipes clanging in the middle of the night from the proposed round-the-clock operation.

If Breitburn is asked to revise its EIR, the report will be subject to a new round of public hearings and will come before the City Council — as it did last April, when the council voted to approve, under the recommendation of Councilmember Michael Feuer of the 5th District.

The last round of public hearings brought out hundreds of neighbors, both for and against the $6-million expansion of the pumping site, as well as modifications to the processing site across the street.

The project aims to increase output from 1,200 to 3,000 barrels of oil a day, pumped from the West Beverly Hills Oil Field, which supplies many of the drill sites in the area. The oil is transported to refineries via underground pipes; none is stored, shipped or processed above ground.

To achieve the increased output, a 129-foot, electrically powered derrick would replace a mobile diesel rig, called a "workover rig," that until now has performed regular maintenance on the site’s 69 wells. Breitburn had planned to increase the current 10 days a month of workover operations to 24 hours a day, year-round, save all Jewish and legal holidays. The project would also raise the perimeter wall from 12 feet to 25 feet and enclose most of the operations in soundproof structures.

Breitburn says removing the mobile diesel rig will eliminate almost all the diesel emissions at the site, which accounted for most of the toxins emitted.

The initial approval from the city’s Office of Zoning Administration laid out 78 conditions in areas such as noise, odor, air quality, worker decorum, landscaping, operations and monitoring.

But NASE sued the city and Breitburn, saying the EIR the city approved does not adequately measure the current output of emissions and therefore cannot reflect what the expanded operation would do to the environment. In addition, NASE questions the city’s ability to adequately monitor the site.

The judge’s finding — based solely on noise — was surprising to NASE members, they say, adding, however, that serving a setback to Breitburn and bringing the issue back to the public is what counts.

"We think there’s a lot more than clanging pipes that is wrong with this project, but that’s what we won on," Moskowitz said. "The way the law works, it doesn’t matter how many grounds you win on, the city still has to revoke the permit that it issued."

He says NASE can ask the judge to force Breitburn to pay NASE’s attorney fees, which would give the nonprofit organization funds to acquire experts for the next round.

NASE will again try to mobilize the public so that the councilmember’s office will understand neighborhood concerns.

"Of course we would have liked to have forced Breitburn to make a more adequate analysis of the pollution issues, but that doesn’t preclude us from forcing our representatives to look at pollution issues," Moskowitz said.

The impending election might also influence the case. Michael Feuer is up for city attorney, the governmental entity that was a co-respondent with Breitburn in the case NASE brought. Jack Weiss and Tom Hayden are in a run-off in the June election for Feuer’s vacated seat for the 5th District.

NASE members say Hayden would probably be most effective in fending off what they see as the oil company’s heavy influence over city politics.

But Breitburn says politics won’t matter. "We have absolutely no concern about any political changes that may occur in the June election because we believe that the improvements to the site are so overwhelmingly in support of the environment that this project will proceed," Sunkin said.

Neighbors Take On Pico Oil Drilling Site

The day Mina Solomon’s father lay dying of cancer in the bedroom in which he had lived for 25 years, she called Breitburn Energy, the company that owns the oil drilling site 80 feet from her property. She asked them to work a bit more quietly, to contain the noise of the diesel-powered derrick and the clanging of pipes.

That day they complied. But, she claims, very often in her five-year struggle with the company, she and the other neighbors around the 3/4 acre site at Pico and Doheny — in the heart of the heavily Jewish Pico-Robertson neighborhood — have had no one to call on.

The company has been unresponsive, she alleges, and city and state agencies offer such a confusing picture of who holds jurisdiction over the site, that neighbors who detect foul odors or high levels of noise don’t know whom to call.

Now Breitburn has submitted an application to the city zoning board for an expansion. Extraction and processing of oil and natural gas has been going on at the site 24 hours a day, year-round, but essential and continuous maintenance on the drills and pipes was limited to ten days a month by a 1990 ordinance. Now, the company wants to increase those workover operations to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, which will increase output from 1,200 barrels a day to 3,000.

But the 107-foot diesel-powered rig on a flat bed truck that used to do the workover will be replaced with a 175-foot tower enclosing an electrically-powered derrick, eliminating most diesel emissions. Breitburn also plans to raise the current 12-foot wall to 25 feet, and build other structures to enclose more operations, reducing both noise and bringing emissions down 88 percent from current levels, company representatives say.

The public will have a chance to air their thoughts and learn more about the project at a hearing before the zoning administrator on Thurs., Dec. 2 at 4 pm at the Holiday Inn Select, 1150 South Beverly Dr.

Councilman Michael Feuer, who has worked with this issue for years, will also be at the hearing to listen to residents before delivering his opinion. A zoning administrator will take the opinions into consideration before issueing the decision. If anybody responds to that decision within 15 days, the case goes before the Board of Zoning Appeals.

Breitburn has spent a lot of time and money making friends in the community, a common practice among oil companies.

“We are a gas and oil company — people are predisposed to question us,” says Hal Washburn, co-founder of Breitburn with Randall Breitenbach. “We want to make sure everyone understands everything and make sure there is absolutely nothing in this project that everyone involved doesn’t know about.”

That means retaining area residents to educate their neighbors and encourage them to support Breitburn; publishing cheery informational brochures with bright-blue sky backgrounds; asking for community input for an artistic design for the derrick; and holding informational meetings at Factor’s Deli or Pat’s kosher restaurant.

It also means substantial money for the community. Breitburn has promised to set up a community trust fund and has already adopted the Canfield School, a nearby public elementary school, giving an initial grant of $10,000 for playground equipment and promising a matching grant of $10,000 a year for 10 years.

Other schools in the area, including Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy at Doheny and Olympic, and the Chabad school on Pico across Doheny, were also approached by Breitburn, but did not receive any money.

In addition, many homeowners and shuls hold royalty rights and get paid a quarterly sum for the oil extracted from their property.

All of that makes for a tough fight, Solomon says.

“This whole thing is like a big game, and you can’t play unless you have equal money,” she says.

But community institution resent implications that Breitburn can buy their approval.

“We were not told what to do or what to think,” says Sylvia Rogers, principal of Canfield School. “It was a simple investment in a public school, which we encourage any business in the neighborhood to do.”

Several local rabbis have come out against the expansion, including Rabbi Menachem Gottesman, principal of Hillel; Rabbi Abner Weiss of Beth Jacob Congregation; Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai-David Judea; and Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City. All have circulated petitions against the expansion.

Chabad and Aish HaTorah, directly across the street, are still studying the issue.

Aish HaTorah has dealt with the oil company in the past, when Breitburn was one of six local businesses to sign a parking variance they needed for an expansion.

“That was two years ago, long before we knew about this project,” says Greg Yaris, council to the board of Aish HaTorah. “There was no quid pro quo.”

Yaris says the decision to support, oppose or stay silent about the expansion will be based solely on the facts.

Uncovering the environmental impact may take some detective work.

The Environmental Impact Report was produced by a firm paid by Breitburn, then reviewed and approved by the city. The final draft includes letters from concerned parties and responses.

The report concludes that expansion would reduce toxic emissions from current levels, noise impact would be negligible and traffic would be unaffected. Aesthetically, the building would be architecturally treated to blend with the neighborhood, more trees would be planted and the 175-foot derrick would be a clock tower or decorated with art, serving as a community landmark.

But Jim Tarr, an environmental consultant who was hired by Solomon and other concerned neighbors, says the report leaves too much unexplored. He says chemical engineering techniques were flawed, that the composition of new reserves was not assessed, that the entire processing side of the operation did not receive enough attention.

Tarr is also concerned about what he claims is confusing information about whether hydrogen sulfide, also known as sour gas, exists at the site.

“Hydrogen sulfide is an acute toxic poison, which means that if exposed to it in very high concentration, it has the capacity to kill people in short order,” Tarr says. “I’m not saying that is going to happen or that there is going to be that risk, but… there should be no confusion whatsoever what the hydrogen sulfide issues are on the site.”

But Washburn says hydrogen sulfide is not an issue at the site, and he says Tarr’s other claims are baseless. He stands by the report, saying its techniques and conclusions are sound.

“When you look at the EIR at the end of the day, if this project is opposed, they are opposing improving the environment,” Washburn says.

Tarr has a different view.

“The EIR is full of speculation and unsubstantiated claims,” he says. “There are mistakes and mischarecterizations. It is an unreliable, misleading document as written from an air pollution and toxic chemical exposure perspective.”

Solomon claims it is the kind of deception she’s experienced all along.

“This is an inappropriate location for an industrial complex. It’s too close to residences, and should never have been here to begin with.”

Allowing the expansion will only further entrench it, she says, making sure it never goes away.

But Breitburn says the plant is here to stay.

“We’re not kidding ourselves,” says Howard Sunkin, a Breitburn consultant. “Everybody and their mother would like to see this go away. But that is not an option.”