Big Stink Over Gas Storage : Playa del Rey: When natural gas was first injected underground, the only neighbors were birds. Now residents complain of leaks and odors.


Since World War II, vast quantities of natural gas have been stored in the sandstone pores of an old oil field more than a mile beneath Playa del Rey, the Ballona Wetlands and parts of Marina del Rey and Venice.

At the Southern California Gas Co.'s processing plant high atop the Playa del Rey bluffs, natural gas piped from Texas and California producers is compressed, cooled and injected deep into the Del Rey field. The gas remains there until it is needed to meet customer demand.

For most of its history, the plant’s only neighbors were the hawks and migratory birds that frequent the sandy bluffs and the wetlands below.

But now the facility and many of the wells where gas is injected and withdrawn are surrounded by urban development.


Instead of wildlife, the gas company operates side-by-side with residents of multimillion-dollar, bluff-top homes with spectacular views of Santa Monica Bay and the entire Westside from Malibu to downtown Los Angeles.

With the residents have come complaints about odors, leaks and the venting of gas from wells that in some cases are just a few feet away from expensive homes. Like many other areas of Los Angeles, the situation in Playa del Rey has the potential to become a classic land-use conflict between industry that was there first and the residents who came later.

Pat Boster, a leader of the Playa del Rey Bluffs Assn., a homeowners group, said her neighborhood smells like gas at least once a week. “You’d think somebody had turned on the gas in your house, when they are really venting,” she said. “When our house is full of it, the whole neighborhood is full of it.”

Joe Berberich, a neighbor, agreed. “Periodically the place just gets inundated with natural gas smells. . . . It’s certainly a source of concern. No one wants to be breathing gas.”

Berberich said he and other neighborhood residents have called the gas company numerous times to complain about the telltale gas smell, which is actually a scent added to the usually odorless gas. “I don’t know if they have wells that are leaking or if it’s part of their venting,” he said. “Nobody really knows that.”

In response to persistent questioning from neighbors, gas company officials acknowledged recently that small amounts of gas are vented into the air up to 50 times a month.

Jim Tierney, general superintendent of the gas company’s South Basin Division, disclosed in a letter to Boster last spring that about 300,000 cubic feet of natural gas is vented into the air each month from normal operations at Playa del Rey. The amount vented is enough gas to supply 57 residential customers for a month.

Tierney said the vented gas is “a relatively tiny fraction of the billions of cubic feet of gas stored in our underground facilities.” And he pledged that efforts would be made to reduce the venting by two-thirds before the end of this year.


Dave Zuniga, station superintendent, said the venting varies from 10 to 15 times a month to as much as 50 times a month depending on maintenance of compressors, wells, pipelines and other equipment.

Concerned about possible health effects, the Playa del Rey Bluffs Assn. has enlisted the help of a public health professor and a law professor at UCLA to understand the implications of the gas company’s operations.

Boster said more than 100 neighborhood residents attending a community meeting with gas company representatives last November were shocked to learn that the storage field underlies about 460 acres--an area running from Manchester Avenue on the south across Playa del Rey, the Ballona Wetlands and part of Marina del Rey to Venice.

“They never gave us any clue,” she said. “We had no idea we were living over such an extensive field.” Nor did the residents know the extent of the venting. “We had no idea they would vent that stuff on us,” Boster said.


UCLA law professor Henry McGee, who has been retained as a consultant by the homeowners, describes the gas company facility as an improper land use in what is now a residential neighborhood. “It’s obviously incompatible. Whether it’s safe is not known,” he said.

The tension could rise if ambitious plans for a vast new community called Playa Vista between Playa del Rey and Marina del Rey become reality.

Developer Nelson Rising said he believes the gas company’s operations are compatible with plans for construction of the massive residential, office, retail, marina and hotel complex. “We’re quite confident that there’s no problem,” Rising said.

Gas company officials say the Playa del Rey gas storage field, one of six such fields operated by the company, has operated safely for nearly half a century and they promise to take steps to reduce any impact on the neighbors.


Tierney said the facility is vital to serving gas customers.

“We could not duplicate this facility. It is a naturally occurring facility, so it’s not something you can pick up and move to some remote location,” he said. “That can be done with most things in the industrial world, but not with this kind of facility. It’s just here. God put it here and that’s it. So we’ve got to live with the neighbors.”

Tierney readily admits that circumstances have changed since the Del Rey oil field was discovered in 1929. The first oil well in the area was dubbed Rod and Gun Club 1, a testament to the lonely nature of the landscape in those days.

As the oil was extracted, room was created in the underground rock formations that was ideal for gas storage.


During World War II, the field was operated by the U.S. War Department to ensure an adequate supply of natural gas to defense plants in the area. After the war, the field was acquired by the gas company, which has operated it ever since.

A total of 72 wells operate today throughout the field. Thirty of them, near the center of the field in Playa del Rey, are used for injection and withdrawal of gas. The remainder, scattered at the periphery of the field, are used for withdrawal only.

Altogether, 2.6 billion cubic feet of gas can be stored in the field. The gas is withdrawn as needed on cool winter days and when smog conditions require electric generating plants in the South Bay to use clean-burning gas rather than more polluting fuels.

Despite complaints from some residents, officials at the South Coast Air Quality Management District said they have never been able to prove that the gas company facility is the source of odors in the area and no violation notices have been issued.


In May, AQMD inspectors determined that the likely source of odors reported near the bluffs was the city of Los Angeles’ sewer line that carries waste water to the Hyperion treatment plant. The line runs under Cabora Drive, a paved path midway up the bluff face. Manhole covers were sealed to control the smell.

But neighbors are not satisfied. “It’s not the sewer line,” Berberich said. “It’s definitely a natural gas smell.”

Air samples taken last August in the vicinity of the Treasure 8 well on Delgany Avenue showed trace amounts of cancer-causing chemicals benzene and toluene in the air. “The minute quantities observed make it nearly impossible to ascertain whether venting or leaks from Treasure 8 were the source,” inspectors wrote.

Samples taken in January and February in other parts of Playa del Rey showed benzene levels at 5 parts per billion, double the 2.4 parts per billion that is the average concentration in the basin’s air.


The gas company has acknowledged in notices sent to customers that natural gas can contain small amounts of benzene. Elliott H. Harris, an environmental engineer for the gas company, said benzene levels range from 0 to 50 parts per million in natural gas depending on the source of supply.

Toluene levels in the recent air samples were 15 parts per billion or 1.5 times the average concentration.

AQMD spokesman Bill Kelly said the readings were “not really that much out of sync” with the levels recorded in coastal areas of Los Angeles.

And air quality officials were not concerned about the venting of natural gas, which is primarily methane. “In general, we do not regulate that kind of activity,” said AQMD’s senior engineering manager, Dave Schwien.


When released at ground level, methane rises and disperses quickly, and does not react with other gases to form smog. “In our judgment,” Schwien said, “methane is not an air contaminant.”

After looking at the test results, Schwien added: “We just don’t see this as a problem.”

Nevertheless, the gas company is planning to install a flare stack next year that will burn off much of the gas that is now vented into the air.

Tierney said the flare stack, already used at gas storage fields in Whittier and Montebello, should eliminate odors. He said plans to install the equipment were prompted by the fact that “neighbors are moving in downwind” from the plant. The flare stack was not required by any government agency.


The gas company has also posted signs on some wells warning that hydrogen sulfide, a flammable poisonous gas, may be present. Electronic monitors have been placed at the wells to alert plant operators to the presence of hydrogen sulfide.

Jeevan P. Anand, division superintendent for the gas company, said the monitoring equipment was installed because “we’re being surrounded by people. . . . If our operations are in any way causing any problem, rather than react to it, we need to be prepared ahead of time,” he said.

In response to new AQMD regulations, the gas company will fully enclose its facilities at the base of the bluffs where water pumped out of the wells is treated before being discharged to the county sewer system.

The gas company’s actions, while welcome, have not deterred activists such as Boster. She is still pressing county health officials to probe the causes of cancer deaths in the neighborhood.


Philip Jacobs, an epidemiology analyst for the Los Angeles County Health Department, said a review of cancer statistics from 1972 to 1980 failed to find anything unusual in Playa del Rey.

“The cancer rate in their area was not statistically different from all of Los Angeles County. I did not find anything that stood out,” he said.

Boster, who has had cancer surgery three times since moving to the area in 1968, is not satisfied. She called on the county to conduct a full-fledged study of cancer in the neighborhood.

“To avoid using the current data when many of these houses did not exist in 1980 seems incredible to me,” she said. “They should be ashamed not to look at those statistics.”


PLAYA DEL REY GAS STORAGE FACILITY Since World War II, the Southern California Gas Co. has operated a vast underground natural gas storage field beneath Playa del Rey, the Ballona Wetlands and parts of Marina del Rey and Venice. The facility is one of six storage fields operated by the company--five in Los Angeles County and one near Santa Barbara. Operation: Natural gas from Texas and California producers arrives at the Playa del Rey plant via pipeline. The gas is compressed, cooled and compressed again before being injected 6,000 feet into the ground.

Purpose: Gas is stored in the field until it is needed to meet customer demand and maintain pressure in pipelines that serve residences and businesses in much of Los Angeles.

Storage: Up to 2.6 billion cubic feet of gas in a porous layer of sandstone once filled with oil. The underlying premise for the field is that a geologic structure that has held oil and gas for millions of years is well-suited for storing gas piped in from elsewhere.

Size of Field: 460 acres.


Number of Wells: 72, of which 30 near the center of the field in the Playa del Rey area are used for both injection and withdrawal of gas. The remainder, around the field’s periphery, are used for withdrawal only.

Issues: Neighbors complain about odors, leaks and venting of gas. Gas company acknowledges venting gas up to 50 times a month but promises to reduce the volume and install new pollution control quipment.