Montebello Rejects Study on Gas Storage

Times Staff Writer

Saying that many questions have been left unanswered, a dissatisfied City Council on Monday rejected a report that concludes that the Southern California Gas Co.'s monitoring of its underground gas storage system is "appropriate" and provides protection for residents.

The $12,000-study was compiled by Babson & Sheppard, a petroleum engineering consulting firm based in Santa Fe Springs, which the city retained in May to investigate the storage system and determine whether Montebello residents are endangered by natural gas leaks.

Babson & Sheppard concluded that the monitoring was "reasonable and realistic," although its report stated that the gas company had refused to answer questions about instruments and techniques used to monitor the leaks,

"I don't think I can go along with this," Councilman Phillip Ramos said. "The consultant says he did not receive all the information, yet he makes a conclusion. I'd like to know how he can do it. How can he make a conclusion?"

Unanimous Decision

The council voted unanimously not to accept the report until the city gets more information from all available sources, including the gas company and the state Division of Oil and Gas which issues the gas company's operating permit and oversees its activities.

The council decided to order the firm to conduct more research and rejected a staff recommendation that the council accept the report.

Although Councilman William Nighswonger suggested that the council accept the report and seek more help from the consultant, the others questioned the study and pressed for rejection of the report until additional information is received.

"I'd like to get more specific statements," Councilman William Molinari said. "I am not prepared to accept this report. Our concern is for the safety of our residents and this report does not go far enough in answering questions."

Questions Unanswered

The report, he said, stated that more leaks may occur but did not answer questions about whether the gas company's continued operations are contributing to the problem and increasing possible risks.

No one from Babson & Sheppard attended the meeting, and the council was unable to press the firm about the report's deficiencies.

In its report, Babson & Sheppard said that the gas company would not provide more information because it was sued in December by Montebello residents who claim that their health and property have been harmed by the leaks.

However, in a telephone interview Tuesday, John Bergquist, a petroleum engineer for Babson & Sheppard, said that the gas company had decided to answer most of the questions it initially refused to answer. But he said the answers were not received in time for the report's July 24 deadline.

Bergquist said that the gas company had responded in a telephone interview, that he had written down the data, sent it back to the gas company and is awaiting verification. He said he will submit an updated report to the city within two weeks.

In response to a reporter's inquiry, city officials said Tuesday that they were unaware that the consultant's report would be updated.

Mark Minnich, an attorney for the gas company, confirmed that the company had responded to the questions but that he had not yet reviewed Bergquist's work.

Montebello sits on top of what was once an oil field where 267 wells were drilled and later abandoned. Some were not properly capped. The gas company injects and stores gas into sandstone reservoirs underground where some of the wells are located. Since 1976, natural gas leaks have occurred, the gas escaping through some of the abandoned wells, resulting in the evacuation and destruction of three homes and the lawsuit filed against the gas company.

No Safety Problem

Gas company officials have said that gas leaking from the storage field causes no safety problem.

Robert Salmon, district manager for the gas company's Southeast division, said Tuesday, "We've always felt that we're doing the best that we possibly can to provide a safe condition for the Montebello residents."

Mayor Art Payan said Tuesday that the city staff "will go wherever they have to go to get information because we as a council are not going to be satisfied with significant questions being unanswered."

The report quoted officials from the Division of Oil and Gas as saying that Southern California Gas was doing a "good job" in its well repairs.

Richard Manuel, a technical support supervisor for the division of oil and gas, reiterated that appraisal in an interview, saying that he does not "see any immediate danger" to residents.

"The gas company," he said, "is doing an excellent job and there is no need for alarm."

The council called for the report in April, prompted by the gas explosion and fire that occurred in the Fairfax District in Los Angeles on March 24.

In its report, the consultant concluded that the most significant difference between the Fairfax area and Montebello is the gas company's monitoring program which "has a goal of locating any potential gas source before it can form a hazard.

"A monitoring program of similar magnitude might have detected the accumulation in the Fairfax district before it caused a problem."

Uncommon Situation

The report found that "leakage of natural gas from underground gas storage reservoirs is not unusual, but leakage to the surface (emphasis added) is not a common situation."

The leaks are more likely to happen in Montebello because of the large number of abandoned oil wells that provide a channel for the gas to migrate upward. The gas can move to shallow underground water formations and be driven toward the surface, the report said.

The study said that it is not known how or if the gas company reclaims gas from those water formations.

The consultant's questions that were left unanswered in the report, for which Bergquist said he now has answers, cover:

- The frequency and accuracy of monitoring, the instruments used, their sensitivity to natural gas.

- Techniques for surveying abandoned well sites and the levels at which gas concentrations are considered normal.

- How and which observation wells are used to monitor the presence of gas in various zones.

The report quotes Southern California Gas as saying that it monitors abandoned wells that are not under structures once a month; those that are beneath structures it checks twice a month. If gas has been detected, however, it increases monitoring to one to three times daily.

The consultant also reported that the Division of Oil and Gas usually conducts an annual review of the gas company's operations, but that at its January meeting the division had decided to hold quarterly reviews of the gas company for an indefinite period instead.

"It is our impression that this change was made as much because of the Montebello residents' lawsuit as because of the recent well activity related to suspected leakage of storage gas," the report said.

In 1983, some of the leaks resulted in the evacuation of residents from three homes that subsequently were razed in 1984. Last year, complaining about headaches, nausea and vomiting, 38 residents sued the gas company in Los Angeles Superior Court, charging that gas leaks were responsible for their health problems.

Hearing Set

The suit now includes 200 plaintiffs. In September a hearing will be held on the request of 16 other residents who want to join in the suit. It charges that the gas company allowed explosive concentrations of gas to seep into homes and neighborhoods and calls for $200 million in punitive and other damages for loss of property value, medical care, injury and emotional and physical stress.

The suit also contends that the gas company has withheld information about the extent of the danger to Montebello residents and the nature of work on or near their properties.

Gas company officials have denied the charges, saying they have kept residents informed.

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