January 18, 2019

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.”