It began early on July 16, when Pat Prouty, 73, stepped in front of a bulldozer's big metal blade and told the operator, "You're either going to go through me or over me, because I'm not moving."
By that afternoon, work on a new underground pipeline that would carry millions of gallons of gasoline and aviation fuel past her South Whittier home had been halted.
And the next day, Prouty convinced county officials and the pipeline installers to reroute the line around her Louis Avenue neighborhood, where she has lived since the mid-1940s.
Several miles away, word of Prouty's gutsy stand ignited hopes among residents on Catalina Avenue that a similar compromise on the pipeline's path through their neighborhood could be reached.
While complaints about the safety of the gasoline-filled, 24-inch line failed to persuaded Southern Pacific Pipe Lines Inc. to change the route, the Catalina Avenue group has persuaded the City Council to re-examine how it notifies residents about such projects.
Routes Hard to Find
Moreover, the flap has focused attention on the issue of running pipelines brimming with volatile liquids through suburban neighborhoods. As cities in southeast Los Angeles County have built out in the past two decades, it has become increasingly difficulty for officials to find undeveloped routes for pipelines carrying fuel products. At times the dilemma has left cities trapped between serving commercial and constituent interests.
"No matter what you do, you're wrong," said Clyde Haight, Whittier's public works director. "There isn't a route in this city that doesn't impact on somebody."
Though City Atty. Robert Flandrick contends the council complied with the law by running legal notices about the pipeline project in a local newspaper, some residents argue officials had a moral obligation to individually notify those living on the route about safety and construction aspects of the proposal.
Under current law, Haight said the city is only required to send individual notices to residents regarding zoning changes within 300 feet of their property.
"Even if they observed the letter of the law, they have violated the moral trust of the voters by not properly informing us," said Mike Oppenheim, a Catalina Avenue homeowner whose front door is less than 40 feet from the pipeline.
"We elected them to look out for our interests and they haven't done it," he said. "The council should have realized the sensitivity of this issue. In a town this size, a councilman should get out and ring doorbells if necessary."
Charles Hill, a spokesman for Catalina Avenue-area residents and a Whittier College psychology professor, said the group is not opposed to the pipeline, just the location. He said it should be routed along a existing commercial strip to minimize the potential risk in case of an accident, leak or blowout.
"In a residential area, hundreds of people are living on top of potential disaster 24 hours a day," Hill said.
Most Catalina Avenue residents learned about the pipeline only hours before work crews and heavy equipment appeared in the tree-lined neighborhood just north of Whittier Boulevard in one of the city's older areas.
Flyers announcing the project and its purpose were hand delivered by the pipeline installer to those along the route the night before construction on the two-lane avenue began.
The Long Beach-based pipeline company approached Whittier officials in April about laying the pipeline in the city as part of a 17-mile addition to the firm's existing underground network of gas lines.
Since 1956, Southern Pacific Pipe Lines has pumped finished petroleum products from refineries in Carson to a transfer station in Colton, just west of San Bernardino. From there it is then trucked or piped farther east and north to California's agriculturally important Imperial Valley, or to Arizona or Las Vegas. But in recent years, demand for gasoline and aviation fuel in those regions has soared, and Southern Pacific has been unable to keep pace because of its undersized pipeline, said Joe Whitlaw, the firm's special projects manager.
A year ago, the company shipped 82 million barrels--the equivalent of 460,000 tanker-truckloads--of gasoline and other fuels from a variety of Southern California refiners through its 16-inch pipeline. A portion of that line passes through southeast Whittier along Leffingwell Road.
To meet projected demands for next 40 to 50 years, Whitlaw said Southern Pacific is nearing completion on this, the second Carson-to-Colton pipeline. He said the final leg of the new line, a 17-mile stretch running from Carson through parts of Long Beach, Bellflower, Norwalk, Santa Fe Springs and Whittier, should be finished by the end of August, and operating by mid-September. There has been no opposition in those cities, said Whitlaw.
In Whittier, the pipeline runs northeast along Mills Avenue to Lambert Road, where it turns west to Gunn Avenue. There, it heads north to Whittier Boulevard, cuts diagonally across East Whittier Middle School to Catalina, and then north into the Puente Hills.
Beyond Whittier, the 55-mile pipeline runs north into Hacienda Heights and then east through the San Gabriel Valley to Pomona and finally Colton.
Whitlaw said a host of local and state agencies approved the new pipeline route, and agreed with Whittier officials that it poses no significant health hazard.
Besides Whittier, the Los Angeles County Fire Department, the state Fire Marshal's office and the Regional Water Quality Control Board reviewed the project and raised no objections, Whitlaw said.
"It's a thousand times safer to send these products by pipeline than by tanker truck," Whitlaw said. "There's just no comparison. Southern California is crisscrossed by pipelines, and every day thousands of barrels of petroleum is moved without incident."
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the risk of an accident from trucks transporting liquid products is about 1,000% higher than that from a pipeline, based on deaths per billion ton-miles of commodity being transported.
There have been several pipeline incidents in recent years, the most damaging in Long Beach nearly five years ago. A 1947-vintage underground pipeline carrying a highly volatile solvent ruptured in a residential neighborhood on the city's West Side, severely damaging 12 houses, causing $3 million in damages and injuring two men.
Besides the threat to their homes, Hill's group says the new pipeline runs past or near three Whittier area schools--California High, East Whittier Middle School and Mulberry Elementary School.
At East Whittier Middle School, the line has been laid across the playground on the east side of the campus. Southern Pacific Pipe Line purchased a right-of-way on school grounds for $76,000, said Kent McClish, assistant superintendent of business services for the East Whittier School District. While the pipeline is only 150 yards from classrooms, McClish said an earlier plan would have put the line even closer to school buildings.
50 Feet From Classrooms
"Initially, it would have bordered the campus on two sides along Whittier Boulevard and Catalina," McClish said. "In some places the line would have been less than 50 or 60 feet from classrooms."
Haight, the city's public works director, believes the new pipeline poses a minimal risk to residences based on a city review of Southern Pacific Pipe Line's record and their proposal.
"If we thought it was hazardous," he said, "we would not have allowed that line to be installed."
Despite the city's assurances, the Catalina Avenue group wants the city to be more aggressive in notifying Whittier residents about future projects that may affect the public safety of a neighborhood. "We were never consulted," Oppenheim said, "and that's what makes us so angry."
At the Tuesday City Council meeting, about 80 Catalina Avenue-area residents turned out as Hill presented officials with a list of questions about the safety of the pipeline, the route and the city's notification process.
In mid-April, Haight said a public hearing was held on Southern Pacific Pipe Line's request for a long-term "franchise agreement" to bury lines under city streets. He said it was publicized in a clearly worded legal advertisement in the Whittier Daily News, but only two people showed up for the hearing.
Most residents questioned said they don't read the Daily News and did not see the public hearing notice.
Under terms of the franchise agreement, Whitlaw said the city will receive about $9,000 a year.
"We are not trying to put anything over on people," Mayor Myron Claxton said. "It is our understanding that there is no other feasible route through the city. I'm sympathetic to their concerns, but I don't think this is something to get alarmed about."
Councilwoman Sabina Schwab said at a recent meeting that the city's notification process "leaves a great deal to be desired." Later she said she will push for a new policy, including mailing press releases or post cards to inform residents of public hearings on key issues.