Congressman Seeks Closure of Fuel Depot : Safety: Rep. Torres cites Norwalk tank farm's threat to ground water and hazard during an earthquake.


Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente) has asked Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney to close a tank farm where millions of gallons of highly flammable jet fuel are stored near homes in the southern area of the city.

The tank farm could be dangerous in a major earthquake, Torres said in a March 15 letter to Cheney. He also questioned whether there is enough firefighting equipment on the site to control a major blaze.

Torres said he is equally concerned about ground-water contamination found at the site.

"It poses a clear and present danger to the ground-water status of all of Norwalk and the surrounding area," Torres said in a telephone interview this week.

A Defense Department spokesman said Torres' request is being evaluated.

"The Norwalk facility is critical to the logistic needs of military bases in Southern California and Nevada," said Lt. Col. Pharris D. Johnson, commander of the Defense Department's seven-state Defense Fuel Region West, headquartered in San Pedro. "The terminal is being operated and maintained in a safe manner."

The facility supplies bases in California, Nevada and Arizona by truck and through a series of government and private pipelines.

Resident Robert Stock, who lives on a street near the tank farm, has been trying to coax officials for years to move the 12 huge tanks that hold 38 million gallons of jet fuel.

Last month, the Norwalk City Council passed a resolution calling on local and federal legislators to rally against the facility.

Torres was the first to respond, but city officials are hopeful that U.S. Sens. Alan Cranston and Pete Wilson also will push for the plant to be closed.

Councilman Luigi A. Vernola said he is optimistic now that Torres is opposing the tank farm. "The time has come in this day and age that that type of facility is not needed in a residential area," Vernola said. "We need to give people peace of mind when they sleep at night."

The tank farm 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 it was soon surrounded by homes and the heavily used Holifield Park.

A seismic safety study released last summer resulted in intense opposition to the facility.

The study, by Libby Engineers of San Diego, said a strong earthquake could cause the tanks to leak and an electrical connection to spark, which could trigger an explosion. In response, the Defense Department has pledged to make $1.7 million in improvements suggested by the study.

The earthquake concerns raised in the Libby study added to the problems identified in a 1987 study by another consultant, Harding Lawson Associates of Tustin. In that study, about 3,800 cubic yards of soil contaminated with heavy fuel oil were discovered. Benzene, a suspected cancer-causing agent, and lead were detected.

The 1987 study also said relatively high levels of benzene and another solvent were detected in water samples drawn from a test well at a depth of about 40 feet.

But the study concluded that the contamination of ground water was not a threat to the public, because it was far above the aquifer from which the city draws its water.

(The five water companies serving Norwalk draw their water from depths of 236 feet to 1,250 feet, according to a city report.)

The Defense Department has begun the second phase of its study, which includes digging additional water-monitoring wells on the site to determine the extent of contamination and how to best remedy the problem. The second phase is to be completed in August.

There has been recent evidence of additional or spreading contamination at the site. In December, fuel was discovered in a previously clean monitoring well, according to a Defense Department official. The water from the well is 22 to 30 feet below the surface, more than 200 feet above the area from which Norwalk draws its ground water, the official said.

The city commissioned its own study last May. A preliminary report indicated that some of Norwalk's underground water was contaminated with tetrachloroethane and trichloroethane, two industrial solvents that are suspected of causing cancer.

Since 1982, three wells have been closed in Norwalk because of ground-water contamination. Several sites, including the tank farm, are being investigated as possible sources of the contamination.

Last summer, Torres said he supported continued operation of the fuel depot for national security reasons. But the congressman said he changed his mind in light of the additional contamination problems and the easing of tensions between the world superpowers.

"The (area's ground water) can be in danger," Torres said. "We need to do something about this."

Torres said he had not received a response to his letter. A final decision to close the base would have to be made by a bipartisan federal commission.

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