Union Oil’s Tank Farm May Remain, Judge Rules

Times Staff Writer

Saying that crude-oil tank farms are necessary because of American dependency on foreign oil, a Long Beach Superior Court judge last week threw out a lawsuit brought by an environmental group that sought to close the Union Oil tank farm in San Pedro.

“The tank farm is not a nuisance, it is a necessity,” said Judge James M. Sutton Jr. “It is a public necessity to feed our ever-burgeoning desire for foreign oil.”

The suit, filed last summer by the Coastal and Harbor Hazards Council, alleged that the 20-acre tank farm was built along 22nd Street in 1958 without proper public notice, that the tanks violate the city’s zoning laws and that they constitute a public nuisance. The suit sought a court order that would have required the Los Angeles Harbor Department, which owns the property, to order Union Oil to dismantle the tanks.

The hazards council, formed 10 years ago after the explosion of the oil tanker Sansinena in Los Angeles Harbor, has alleged for years that the tank farm is a threat to residents in the area and to people using recreational facilities in the West Channel, including the new Cabrillo Marina. The group has fought unsuccessfully to have the tanks moved to a less populous area.


2 Million-Barrel Capacity

The tank farm, which can hold 2 million barrels of crude oil, serves as a temporary layover point for crude oil pumped from the Union Oil terminal in Los Angeles Harbor. Oil from the tanks then is piped four miles north to the company’s refinery in Wilmington.

At a hearing on Thursday, attorneys for the City of Los Angeles and Union Oil asked Sutton to dismiss the case, arguing, among other things, that the Harbor Department had obtained a conditional-use permit for the tank farm and that the environmental group’s action came years after the six-month statute of limitations on permit challenges had expired.

The original conditional-use permit was issued by the city’s Planning Commission in March, 1958, and Union Oil erected five tanks on the property, according to court documents. The permit was amended six years later and two more tanks were built, and again in May, 1975, when an eighth and ninth tank were added to the farm, the documents said.


“We acknowledge it is a controversial issue,” William D. Ross, an attorney representing Union Oil, said outside the courtroom. “There is some dispute as to the facts, but clearly we are operating within the law.”

Public Notice Questioned

Beatrice Atwood Hunt, president of the 21-member hazards council, prepared the court documents and represented the group at the hearing. Hunt, who is not an attorney, argued that the 1958 permit was issued without proper public notice, making it impossible for residents to challenge it within six months.

“The people had no way of knowing until the tanks actually went up,” Hunt, who moved across the street from the tanks in 1973, told the judge.


Sutton, however, sided with Union Oil and the city.

“Unless it is challenged within that time, all of the king’s horses and all of the king’s men can’t do anything about attacking the conditional-use permit,” he told Hunt. Even if residents were not properly notified in 1958, Sutton said, they had two other opportunities to oppose amendments to the permit in 1964 and 1975.

But even without the statute-of-limitations problems, Sutton said Hunt’s suit was flawed because it failed to show that the tank farm is a public nuisance. In a written tentative decision released before the hearing, Sutton wrote that the unbridled growth of the tank farm may have diminished property values of nearby homes--including Hunt’s. But, he wrote, that would not constitute a public nuisance.

‘Not a Public Nuisance’


“The tank farm, unsightly and smelly as it may be, is not a public nuisance,” he wrote. “It is a fact of life and one of literally hundreds or thousands of tank farms nationwide.”

During the hearing, Sutton reiterated that the tank farm has been operating legally.

“It is a serious matter for the community,” he said. “The problem is that whatever (Union Oil) has done, right or wrong, it is according to the law.”

City and Harbor Department officials have also said that the tank farm meets all legal and safety requirements for the area. A study of the tank farm commissioned by the port several years ago, however, indicated that structures and people as far as 1,500 feet away could be affected if there were a major fire at the facility. The Cabrillo Marina and some homes on Crescent Avenue, where Hunt lives, fall within that so-called “hazardous footprint.”


The port’s risk-management plan, approved by the state Coastal Commission in 1983, calls for the creation of a 355-acre landfill island for the handling of hazardous cargo in the harbor area. Harbor Department officials said the Union Oil tanks will be candidates for relocation when the island is built sometime in the 1990s.

Suggests Other Possibilities

In the meantime, there may be ways “less Draconian than the dismantling of the tank farm” to deal with alleged hazards in the area, Sutton wrote in his tentative ruling last week.

“The Planning Commission, with the advent of the risk management plan, may well be in a position to require construction of a ‘blast-proof’ concrete wall around the tank farm or such other type safety device to ameliorate the risk, if the Planning Commission agrees the risk is as dire as (Hunt) would have us believe,” he wrote.


Hunt said after Thursday’s hearing that the hazards council will continue its efforts to remove the tank farm, but she did not know if the group would appeal Sutton’s decision. She said the group will ask the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners not to renew Union Oil’s lease with the Harbor Department when it expires in 1988.