CENTERPIECE : After the Boom : Talk of a new owner for the now-idle Petrochem refinery has neighbors worried about possible uses for the 96-acre property.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Doris Black's friends told her: Don't let the woman in your house.

"They were right--I'd have been too busy being a nice hostess and being intimidated by her to make my point," Black said.

So she made her point earlier this year in downtown Ventura, over a restaurant lunch that would hold surprises for the woman, Sharon Browning, a publicist-consultant hired by USA Petroleum Co.

Black passed on food altogether, ordering coffee. As Browning lit into her sandwich, out came Black's color photos: print after print of deep orange flames shooting skyward and releasing plumes of black smoke from the flare tower of USA Petroleum's now-idle Petrochem refinery, situated a quarter of a mile from Black's home off North Ventura Avenue.

"She was dumbfounded," said Black, noting that Browning had never seen the refinery in operation.

But Black and her neighbors had.

USA Petroleum had operated the refinery from 1974 through 1984, when an activist group from Ojai succeeded in blocking a $100-million expansion of the plant. In challenging USA's claims on projected emissions, Citizens to Preserve the Ojai persuaded many that airborne toxins would migrate into the cleft of mountains beyond Black's home and then nest, finally, above Ojai. Petrochem's profitability depended upon the expansion, and so, when the Ojai faction prevailed, the refinery was shut.

Black, however, is not from Ojai. Neither, for that matter, is she a power broker or point person on major development in Ventura. In a sense, Doris Black is a "nobody": a retired buyer for Scott's Apparel living in the impeccably maintained tract home she had built in 1956.

That USA Petroleum, a corporate titan by comparison, would seek her audience owes to years of tenacity on Black's part in watching and complaining to government agencies about Petrochem's operations.

But now USA Petroleum is about to sell the refinery. And it has been buying lunch for its foes.

As Lyle Schlyer, USA's general counsel, puts it, Black's name came up recently on the company's short list of people who are "effective advocates for significant constituencies."

Translation: If Doris Black opposes our plan, we might lose again in Ventura.

Much is at stake. Petrochem wants out.

What, after all, can become of an old refinery site in 1992? Finding a use that will satisfy beleaguered owners and wary, environmentally aggressive neighbors is a large test, the outcome of which may signal how the next generation of development will proceed on depleted oil lands in the Ventura River Valley. This test comes at a time of heightened environmental concern, and in a part of the county in which growth has been a contentious issue.

But the land can't remain forever in limbo. For one thing, it's too attractive and valuable, lying at the bucolic base of the Ventura River Valley within minutes of downtown Ventura. For another, it's costing money, producing a net loss, Schlyer said.

The refinery, idle and for sale for more than six years, engulfs a taxable 96-acre site bounded by California 33, which skirts the Ventura River from the ocean to Ojai, and the northern reaches of Ventura Avenue--since the 1920s the de facto Main Street of Ventura's profuse oil fields. It sits, a moonscape of chalky green tanks and boilers and tangled steel pipe, sprouting rust in a microclimate of virtually unbroken sunshine--the very climate that ensures fecundity to John Graham's 17 acres of lemon groves across from the refinery.

It's a difficult sale. For the new owner, the refinery sits upon soil of uncertain toxicity and, therefore, uncertain liabilities for cleanup. Cleanups can be profoundly expensive. The land is in unincorporated Ventura County, but not easily annexed by the city of Ventura. That puts it in a planning gray zone: Anyone wishing to develop the property must look to the city for guidance, not to mention water, but ultimately to the county for use, zoning and environmental approvals. If new uses--an office park, say, or a recreation park--are proposed, the layers of government from which approvals must be won would test even the best-intentioned buyer.

But USA Petroleum said it finally has found itself a buyer: a Pakistani firm, which it will not name. The deal is set to close in July for an undisclosed price. The firm then plans to dismantle the refining equipment and ship it home to Karachi for reassembly, Petrochem officials say.

What would become of the picked-over property is anybody's guess.

Bob Weich of Oxnard, however, owns seven acres adjoining Petrochem that he wishes to make part of any development of the property. He names Seigfried Beacon Pakistan Ltd., of Karachi, as the buyer and Syed Muzammil Husain as Seigfried's managing director. He says he has talked to Husain about consolidating the refinery site with his and other contiguous parcels for a "major commercial-industrial development" approaching 120 acres in size. Attempts to reach Husain here and in Karachi were unsuccessful.

In any event, should the Pakistanis succeed in making the Petrochem purchase, the future of the property will be their problem.

And Doris Black's. At the lunch she had with Browning, held in January, Black made her sentiments plain. "I was very nice about it," she recalls. "I just told her, 'You know, while Petrochem was operating, they were very bad neighbors, and we could not trust what they told us. They lied to us. And so we will be very concerned about what happens with that property.' "

For her part, Browning politely defers to Black. "It was new information to me," she said. "I could see by those pictures that it was very important to her."

Lyle Schlyer leans back in his Santa Monica office and sighs, hands behind his head.

"We're not looking for a fight up there," he said. "We hired Sharon Browning in order to learn the community's agenda. The prospective buyer has the same focus as we do, to get to know the community and build a consensus of support for new uses. We're interested in a use that makes sense for the area and is economically viable. A light industrial park? We've really tried to keep an open mind here."

Schlyer's words, however, find no echo in Ed Boudreau, a longtime Ventura resident hired in recent weeks by the Pakistani purchasers to manage cleanup and development of the Petrochem site. Boudreau, who heads Soil Systems Inc. of Ventura, may well turn out to be a key player in brokering Petrochem's future. He is the man who will present plans for development to county planners and also "sell" those plans to a wary public. The mere mention of Black's name produces a roll of the eyes in Boudreau.

"How can people who don't own the property have anything to say about what use to put it to?" he asks. "It's ridiculous."

He concedes Black is "a nice woman in a one-on-one situation" but he calls her a "pain in the ass" otherwise. The most ardent advocates who would thwart Petrochem's development are reduced by Boudreau to "goofballs on the fringe."

"Look, this place is gonna be developed," Boudreau said. "The Pakistani firm buying the refinery sees the potential for the property, and this firm has quite a lot of money for improvements here."

Still, his annoyance with "goofballs" aside, Boudreau understands that whatever plans are put together must win wide support.

"I know I can't make everyone happy with this," he said. "But we will make enough people happy to make it work."

It didn't used to be this way. But as environmental regulation has burgeoned in the last decade, so has the ability of the public to find a voice at each regulatory step. Permits for emissions to the air, the treatment of waste water, and the handling and disposal of toxic substances--the review of each allows for the Doris Blacks of the community to comment, to challenge, and, as USA Petroleum found in 1984 in facing the well-prepared Citizens to Preserve the Ojai, to prevail.

The very definition of toxic, for example, is protean. Diesel fuel, commonly used by oil field personnel only 12 years ago to wash up, is now listed by the federal government as a hazardous substance when it is stored. Too much of it in the ground, whether from leakage, dumping, or spills, requires extensive cleanup.

Petrochem's fate, then, may well be a litmus test for many of the oil properties along The Avenue, as Ventura Avenue is called. Its oil fields are historically among California's most prolific, though 1991's production level of 6.3 million barrels is a fraction of 1954's 31 million barrels.

At the current rate of decline, things will be exhausted along The Avenue in 20 to 30 years, figures from the state's Department of Conservation show. The question that looms over much of The Avenue is the same question begged by USA Petroleum's desire to unload its refinery: What will come next?

Better still, what can come next? The potential legacies of pollution and cleanup may dramatically affect any new owner's ability to propose new uses for the land. As it stands now, Petrochem could restart the refinery today--its permits to operate at its 1984 production levels are current. But for any use other than refining--a manufacturing plant or office park requiring removal of the refinery--come new levels of site examination for pollutants.

Schlyer insists Petrochem is a relatively clean site. "There's a lot of fear that we've buried a toxic mess under there," he said. "But that's not so."

Still, a guarantee of clean ground and ground water is not part of the Petrochem sale.

"We would not say that there is no contamination there," Schlyer said. "To any prospective purchaser, we would say, 'Look, you've got to do a site assessment.' "

The Pakistanis, however serious their intent to buy, have not yet conducted such an assessment, which typically includes test borings at the site to reveal, among other things, petroleum hydrocarbon contamination as well as the presence of diesel fuel.

Boudreau, however, said he is familiar with the Petrochem property because his firm conducted a cleanup of soils upon the removal of two storage tanks in 1988. He estimates that his firm will bill the Pakistanis about $5 million to clean and neutralize soils surrounding and beneath the refinery equipment once it is carted away.

A 1985 memo, on file with the Toxic Substances Control Division of the state Department of Health, notes that "the Ventura County Environmental Health Department has requested a comprehensive cleanup plan to be submitted prior to sale or decommissioning" of Petrochem. Such a plan would be above and beyond any assessment, and no such plan has been submitted, said Bob Gallagher of the Environmental Health Department.

But then that may be a moot point anyway. "We can only recommend that," he said. "We don't have the authority to require it."

John Graham's lemon groves have never hurt for being in Petrochem's shadow. They remain, Graham estimates, in the upper half to third of yield-per-acre for Saticoy lemons. Graham, in fact, had a deal to farm smaller tracts immediately contiguous with the refinery while it was in operation.

"(Farming) was OK over there too," he said. "People just get scared. It's understandable."

Graham has, in fact, always considered the refinery a "blight on my eyes" but said things were far worse when Shell owned the property and ran it as a urea fertilizer plant from 1952 through 1972. "They had huge compressors or something that would keep the house windows rattling for hours. And then, when you were outside the house, you couldn't talk to anyone who was more than 15 feet away. You'd have to yell."

Things didn't truly startle the neighbors, however, until Petrochem moved in and, in 1974, started refining Ventura crude.

With an eventual refining level of 20,000 barrels a day from a facility that could store 850,000 barrels in above-ground tanks and seven to 10 underground tanks, wastes would include sulfide sludge, tetraethyl lead sludge, catalysts and monoethanolamine--all toxic substances hauled off-site for disposal. Over the next 10 years there would be accidents, chaos, and, in one tragic moment, death.

The Ventura County Fire Department responded to 23 fires, spills, or accidents at Petrochem during those years, records show. This figure, however, may belie the reality of spills and safety problems at the plant.

Sharon Alexander, a former employee of Petrochem, stunned company officials in 1983 by writing a scathing letter to the Ventura Planning Commission, which was considering Petrochem's proposal to vastly expand the refinery. Among other things, Alexander wrote: "Spills and mechanical breakdowns were so common that we employees would play games to see who could predict the next one."

Alexander, who still lives in Ventura and works for the Oil, Chemicals, Atomic Workers International Union, stands by her position on the subject of Petrochem. She worked as dispatcher, weighmaster, gate guard, and keeper of something called the "Red Phone"--a direct emergency telephone line to nearby Mill School. The elementary school, just north of the refinery, ultimately closed, for fear of a large-scale release of ammonia vapor or, worse, an explosion.

But gate-keeping was where Alexander saw trouble the most.

"When we had mishaps, one of my duties was to shut the gates and keep the Fire Department out," she said. "The thinking was: 'We can handle it.' The fact is, every time it rained we had a spill."

Keeping things from the Fire Department wasn't the only concern of Alexander. One of Alexander's jobs was to limit and meter the release of vapors from the flare tower. But often, gases would back up, requiring frequent and voluminous release, something that would frighten neighbors and inspire some to call the Fire Department.

"I'd open the (flare), shut it off, and then reopen it sooner than it should have been," she said, "and just hope and pray that someone like Doris Black wasn't watching and catching on."

Black never caught on, although the flare bursts did frighten her. But she found plenty of other things to complain about. After a 1977 incident in which a welder was fatally burned and four others critically injured, she simply never felt the company was leveling with her.

Lack of trust, along with what it may mean for the future of the Petrochem site, is the sticking point for those who have done battle with Petrochem.

Paul Tebble was among those contacted by Browning. He met with her early this year and then thought: We should get everybody together on this. Tebble is environmental affairs director for the progressive Patagonia outerwear company whose headquarters are at the mouth of the Ventura River, roughly two miles downstream from Petrochem.

So in early March, while no new plan of any kind was proposed or under consideration by either the city or the county, calls were placed to Black and representatives of the Environmental Coalition of Ventura County, Citizens to Preserve the Ojai, and Friends of the Ventura River.

About 15 people showed up March 24 at Patagonia--all on USA Petroleum's short list of key community people--to meet with Mark Conant, an executive with USA Petroleum.

Trust came up first. Black and Stan Greene, active with Citizens to Preserve the Ojai, told Conant that they had little reason to believe Petrochem's claims about anything. Conant listened well.

Then, Conant was asked if the Pakistani buyers had any sense of how much it would cost to clean up any contaminants found on the property.

Conant, Tebble and Black say, had no answer.

Tebble, while calling the meeting a "constructive first step," said with resignation, "They don't have a clue (about site contamination)."

Tebble, seated at a picnic table outside Patagonia's entrance, gestured toward a tiny playground that accommodates children in Patagonia's preschool program.

"We went through it with this right here," he said. "This is the site of the old Hobson meatpacking plant. In 1986, we had the soils tested before putting the kids out there. We sent the samples to the Fire Department. They didn't know what to do with the stuff. (While examining it) they closed us down and barred us from building the kiddie park for six months. It was very expensive for us to be that heavily regulated on such a little thing, but worth it, we feel."

For its part, the Ventura County Fire Department has commented in its report to state agencies that it judged Petrochem, despite its 23 responses to emergencies at the site, a clean facility. Moreover, a state inspector, on the basis of a cursory 1985 site inspection, said the plant "appears to have run a clean operation."

That same inspector, however, cited underground tanks and sumps that were "old and have the potential for leaking" and "the site is next to the Ventura River."

Three years later, however, a representative of the county's Environmental Health Department issued a letter citing violations of state health codes, among them the storage of unlabeled hazardous materials, rusting and leaking drums, and a sulfuric acid spill of unspecified size. It also requested the installation of leak detection devices for all underground storage tanks. Schlyer said all underground tanks have since been removed, with appropriate cleanup around them.

(The latest inventory of chemicals stored at the site, submitted by Petrochem on May 15, 1991, listed 73 substances, many in minute quantities stored in the refinery laboratory and all scheduled for off-site disposal.)

Petrochem's relative cleanliness, at least for the purposes of further refining, was a strong card in 1987, when Viscosity Systems, a San Fernando firm, nearly spent $17 million to purchase and refit the refinery for the production of methanol, a far cleaner product than fuel oil or gasoline.

To this day Kent Fortin, chief financial officer for Viscosity's parent firm, chafes at the experience. Fortin said his firm spent more than $500,000 over six months examining the refinery's permits, condition and site.

The site, in fact, was the most promising aspect of the acquisition. Dames & Moore, an environmental consulting firm, conducted an assessment and ruled it a "virtual clean facility," said Fortin, recommending a mere $50,000 cleanup in one small area near a sump.

What made Fortin walk away from the deal was a lack of commitment from regulatory agencies. Declining to name the officials involved, Fortin said: "We had received verbal commitments from officials up there initially, which is why we proceeded with things. But just before escrow we wanted written assurances that we would be able to operate. They wouldn't put it in writing. We weren't about to spend $17 million and not use that facility."

Fortin felt somewhat betrayed.

He paused.

"I can't really tell you what their thinking was. Very candidly, I wasn't given a reason. Was it local groups against the refinery?"

The next move is the Pakistanis'. Weich quotes Husain as calling the Petrochem purchase "a done deal." Schlyer denies that Husain is the actual buyer while allowing that he "may be involved in some way." Although Schlyer declines to discuss the sale price, $14 million emerged from discussions at the Patagonia meeting. Schlyer, in a wry moment, smiles and says: "I think you could say we've lowered our sights a bit." Boudreau recalls an asking price that exceeded $20 million in 1985.

No plans or proposals have been filed with city or county planners, zoners or supervisors--and hence there is nothing yet to evaluate, test, challenge or laud.

Boudreau makes it clear that he and the Pakistani firm purchasing Petrochem favor a commercial use such as an office park or light industrial such as an electronics manufacturing firm. In the plans to be announced, there will be ancillary features "that will even make the wackos happy," he said.

He makes clear his disdain, however, for certain blue-sky proposals, such as a bike path first drawn into the North Ventura Avenue Plan, adopted jointly by the city and county in 1984 but amended as recently as 1990.

But Weich, who has met once with Boudreau, says: "We're not looking at a one-shot thing. It will be a phased program, to master-plan it with Syed (Husain) ... and work with industries that might relocate here. I'd like us to start by extending Canada Largo Road to the west, to the river, for the railroad access. There's tremendous potential there for development."

Schlyer is optimistic about the Pakistani deal and also the potential reuses of the property. He notes recent discussions with unnamed county officials who issued to USA Petroleum "a few 'atta-boys' " when told of USA Petroleum's notions of light industrial reuse of the refinery property and efforts to meet with community leaders.

But "atta-boy" goes only so far, particularly among those watching what happens to a cursed refinery that seems to have outlived its welcome in a part of town that, as the oil runs out, faces transformation.

Tebble chops the table with his hand.

"This is really a quality of life issue," he said. "I'm sitting right here at the edge of the Ventura River, one of two surviving rivers in this area along with the Santa Clara. Just the fact that it's surviving makes it very special. Everything else has died, been buried or channelized, or diverted for flood control and development. This happens in small steps that are hard to see, but people have noticed. Whatever they do up on that property will affect this river, just as it will affect the Ojai airshed.

"You want a reality check? Just go south, where all the rivers are concrete. Most people from L.A. moved here to get away from that."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°