Take the Pittsburgh Lesson to Heart : Big Angeles Pipeline Could Wreak Havoc Locally, Too

Ellen Stern Harris is the executive director of the Fund for the Environment and a former member of the MWD board of directors and the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.

We often think of oil spills as vast amounts of unleashed black, viscous and toxic crude devastating pristine distant shores. We seldom see them widely disrupting urban life.

But this time it's a million gallons of yellowish diesel fuel that has hit the icy Monongahela and Ohio rivers. The "slug" has wended its way from Pittsburgh through West Virginia and into Ohio. In a couple of weeks it's expected to reach Cincinnati.

It moves with an eerie opalescent sheen while wreaking havoc in its wake. The collapse of Ashland Oil's tank will have affected the lives of millions by the time the cleanup efforts are complete.

Worldwide, the scale of oil operations is enormous. When things go awry, they often do it in a big way. Our awareness of this was heightened more than 20 years ago when the Union Oil tanker Torrey Canyon spilled 1.6 million barrels of crude off Britain's Cornwall coast, devastating marine life there.

Two years later, in 1969, Union's blowout at Platform A in the Santa Barbara Channel was the environmental shot heard round the world.

It was a decade after that when the super tanker Amoco Cadiz lost its cargo off the coast of France. It spilled more than 1 1/2 million barrels of crude, smothering estuarine life nearby.

A year later Pemex's exploratory well Ixtoc I blew 140 million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico's Bay of Campeche.

Yet oil platforms, tankers and storage facilities are only part of the problem. The history of spills from pipeline ruptures and chronic leakage caused by corrosion and weakened welds is also cause for considerable concern.

The General Accounting Office has found the Office of Pipeline Safety understaffed and underfunded. Between 1977 and 1986, nevertheless, 16,668 pipeline accidents were reported to the Department of Transportation, with 2,769 injuries and 299 deaths associated.

In this area, Seal Beach, Huntington Beach and Granada Hills have all experienced recent pipeline spills. More than 100,000 gallons of crude spewed out of a Mobil Oil pipeline at Lebec, near Tejon Pass, last summer.

So it's no wonder that the proposed Angeles Pipeline has been the focus of so much community and political attention in Southern California. For the past two years a coalition of 135 homeowner and civic groups in Los Angeles County has been opposing construction of the 135-mile-long pipeline that has been proposed by a consortium of oil companies. Chevron, Shell and Texaco are the principals. Arco recently withdrew its participation.

The pipeline and related facilities would bring crude oil from offshore Santa Barbara and from Kern County to refineries in Los Angeles.

If built, the pipeline's circumference will be nearly that of a hula hoop through which 330,000 barrels of heavy, sour crude--mixed with volatile natural-gas liquids and heated under pressure--will arrive daily. Because of its heavy-metals content, the stuff is far more toxic than the Alaska crude now being refined here, and thus could have critical effects on both air and water quality.

Elected officials at the local, state and federal levels have protested the disruption that the pipeline construction would cause to the cities whose streets would be dug up, their traffic snarled and their businesses cut off from customers' access. The urban areas most affected would be Los Angeles, Burbank, Glendale, Carson, Compton, El Segundo, Gardena, Hawthorne, Lawndale, Long Beach, Manhattan Beach and Paramount.

The $235-million underground juggernaut would cross 21 earthquake faults, making rupture and spills nearly inevitable and explosions and fires possible. Over time, corrosion and leakage could be a constant despite cathodic protection.

Critics claim that there are insufficient plans for accident prevention and emergency response. And, they charge, the amount of liability insurance being carried by the consortium, Southern California Pipeline System, may prove to be woefully inadequate.

More than 78 miles of the route would be over aquifers that supply part of Los Angeles' drinking water. At eight stream or aqueduct crossings, surface water supplies would be threatened. Pittsburgh and Los Angeles could have a lot more in common than we'd like.

Lawsuits challenging the adequacy of the final environmental-impact report have been filed by the cities of Los Angeles, Glendale and Burbank. The Metropolitan Water District and the Kern County-based Tejon Ranch, through which a portion of the pipeline would pass, also have filed suits.

The MWD staff has indicated that it would be satisfied if the pipeline route was realigned to avoid proximity to its Castaic Lake storage facilities. But MWD's 50-member board of directors, whose largest delegation is from Los Angeles, should take a broader view and maintain its opposition to the pipeline. After all, MWD is responsible for supplying potable water to more than 14 million Southern Californians.

Here's what should be done: The Celeron Pipeline, which goes from Santa Barbara to Midland, Tex., should be utilized instead of constructing the Angeles Pipeline with all its adverse effects. The crude oil then could be refined in an area that is not as deficient in meeting its air-quality standards as is Los Angeles.

If need be, compartmentalized double-hulled tankers could be utilized as well.

Pittsburgh should be lesson enough for us all.

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