Residents Fear for Safety of Fuel Tanks in Norwalk

Times Staff Writer

Robert Stock says he has been fearful ever since the U.S. Department of Defense began storing jet fuel in the huge tanks near his Seaforth Street home more than 30 years ago.

But Stock says he is more concerned than ever after the recent release of a seismic safety study that identifies weaknesses and indicates that a strong earthquake could cause the tanks to leak, electrical connections to spark and possibly trigger an explosion. He has petitioned local and federal officials for three decades to close the facility.

The depot was privately built in the 1920s on the southeast corner of Norwalk Boulevard and Excelsior Drive. The U.S. Air Force acquired the depot in 1951, and soon the site was surrounded by homes and heavily used Holifield Park.

775,000-Million Barrel Capacity

The facility has 12 fuel storage tanks with a total capacity of 775,000 million barrels. It also has several buildings, including administration, a laboratory and two pump station buildings.

"I'm damned worried," Stock, 62, said in an interview last week. "If it explodes, we're gone. If they have a fire, I don't think there's any way they'd put it out."

Some city officials agree with Stock.

"That tank farm is not safe to a certain extent," Mayor Grace Napolitano said in an interview. "They say they can correct the deficiencies. I really want it out of there."

But a military spokesman defended the safety of the operation and said the Department of Defense will make $1.7 million in improvements suggested by the study, which was completed last month.

Lt. Col. Pharris D. Johnson, commander of the Defense Department's seven-state Defense Fuel Region West, said the tank farm is strategically located and should not be moved.

'We Intend to Improve It'

"Overall the report said the tanks were expected to survive," Johnson said. "Although we feel the terminal overall meets or exceeds the industry standards and compares favorably with any like facilities in Southern California and the country, we intend to improve it even further where possible."

Johnson said he did not know when the work would be completed.

The tank farm is a key link in the military's fuel supply system. It supplies bases in California, Nevada and Arizona through a series of government and private pipelines, and by truck as well, Johnson said.

The seismic safety study by Libby Engineers of San Diego identified deficiencies that could prove potentially dangerous in a strong earthquake. The study found:

Some leakage of jet fuel may occur at riveted joints of the large steel tanks, which also may buckle. But the study concluded: "It is believed the fuel tanks would sustain damage but not collapse."

An earthquake may break pipes loose from the tanks, resulting in fuel spills. If there were leakage, asphalt-covered dikes around the tanks are expected to contain the fuel, the report said.

A large movement of the tanks or other equipment in an earthquake could break electrical connections that are too short or too rigid and cause arcing. Also, explosion-proof electrical components that will not ignite vapors were not used in four instances where they should have been, the report said.

A great quake probably would seriously damage administration and laboratory buildings or cause them to collapse.

Libby Engineers proposed $1.7 million in improvements to make the facility safer in an earthquake.

The seismic study was requested by U.S. Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente), who has met with Stock and other concerned citizens. Torres said he plans to hold a meeting next month with city officials and residents to discuss the findings.

"The work has to be done immediately," Torres said in an interview. "If the big one comes, I'm sure fires could erupt."

But Torres said he does not support moving the tank farm, given its strategic importance and the cost involved. He said he has seen no evidence that it poses a "clear and present danger" to the surrounding community.

Tainted Soil Found

It was the second time in recent months that questions were raised about the safety of the tank farm.

A 1987 study by another consultant discovered about 3,800 cubic yards of soil contaminated with heavy fuel oil. Benzene, a cancer-causing agent, was detected. Lead was detected 27 feet below the surface.

Buried waste oil was discovered in 1985 at two areas in the southeast section of the tank farm when workers were digging to install a storm drain. The report also said two spills of unknown amounts of jet fuel occurred in 1968 and 1969.

The report also said relatively high levels of benzene and another solvent were detected in water samples from test wells at relatively shallow depths.

The study concluded that the ground-water contamination discovered is not a threat to the public, because it was detected well above the aquifer from which usable water is drawn.

Concrete Layer Proposed

But the study recommends that a concrete cap be placed over the contaminated soil to prevent rainwater from percolating through to deeper ground water. Capping the contaminated soil is expected to cost $340,000. The Department of Defense will begin further study of soil and ground water contamination later this month, Johnson said.

Reports on the soil study were presented to state and county health departments and the Regional Water Quality Control Board as required by law, Johnson said. But city officials apparently were not notified.

Johnson said he did not know why they were not informed of the results. "I know that by law the people who should have been notified were notified," Johnson said. "We're not talking about some real serious life-threatening problem here. We're talking about something we can deal with."

But the apparent oversight has left some city officials and residents wondering whether tank farm officials are being forthright. City officials said they found out about the study last May.

"Are we really being told the truth?" Napolitano asked.

Block Wall Installed

Johnson points to recent efforts to satisfy Norwalk residents, including the proposed installation of a block wall along Norwalk Boulevard and Excelsior Drive to better shield the facility from vandalism. The tank farm is surrounded by a chain-link fence that is topped with barbed wire. Johnson said the facility has suffered only minor incidents of vandalism, such as rock throwing.

"We want to be good citizens," Johnson said. "We feel we owe it to the citizens of Norwalk to maintain it in first-class condition and we intend to do everything in our power to do that."

But for some residents, such as Stock, the Department of Defense will never be able to make the tank farm safe.

"They're just throwing money away," Stock said. "There's no way they can make that facility safe when it's surrounded by residents."

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