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Homes Proposed at Site of Old Refinery : Ventura: The council will consider USA Petroleum’s bid for a zoning change. Environmentalists voice opposition.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eleven years after USA Petroleum shut down its Ventura Avenue refinery in the face of environmentalists’ opposition, the company wants to clear out the rusting machines and build homes on the 96-acre site.

USA Petroleum has applied to change the zoning for the Petrochem property from industrial to residential, and the Ventura City Council is due to decide at Monday’s meeting whether it wants to study the matter any further.

Some council members said Friday that they supported at least reviewing the idea.

But some Ojai and Ventura area residents are already voicing their concerns over the proposal, saying the property may be inappropriate for a housing development.

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Neil Moyer, a Ventura resident and president of the Environmental Coalition of Ventura County, compared the site’s location to that of the Ventura RV Beach Resort. The trailer park, which lies on the avenue’s southern tip, nearly washed out to sea three years ago during a flood.

Like the trailer park, the vacant Petrochem plant, on the north end of the road, is wedged between the Ventura River and California 33. Moyer, an environmental consultant, said it faces many of the same hazards.

Moyer also worried that, after 30 years of heavy industrial production--including 10 years of oil refining--the land could be dangerously toxic.

“It’s not unreasonable to expect some degree of contamination,” he said. “And it will take years to determine how much is there, and then years to figure out how to clean it up, and then years to do it.”

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Ventura Mayor Tom Buford said such worries should not be dismissed.

“Those are obviously legitimate concerns,” he said. “But having concerns about pollution and flooding doesn’t mean you don’t step forward if the owner requests it.”

The Petrochem plant lies outside the city, but because it could one day be annexed to it, the city and the county long ago agreed to share oversight of that and neighboring properties on the north end of the avenue.

City planners are recommending that if the council agrees to review Petrochem’s request, all the other industrial properties along the unincorporated stretch of the avenue should be considered to see if they, too, should be rezoned for residential use.

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The County Board of Supervisors will consider the rezoning request later this winter, city officials said. County offices were closed Friday, so county officials could not be reached for comment, and USA Petroleum officials did not return phone calls.

The plant began operation in the 1950s, when Shell owned the property and manufactured urea fertilizer. USA Petroleum bought the land in 1972 and started refining crude oil there two years later.

At its height, the facility refined 20,000 barrels of oil a day and could store 850,000 barrels in above-ground tanks and seven to 10 underground tanks. Toxic wastes produced at the plant--such as sulfidge sludge and monoethanolamine--were hauled away for disposal.

Homes and farms dot the land around the factory. Longtime neighbors recall shuddering at the sight of flames shooting out of a plant tower and at the news that one worker was fatally burned and four others were injured in a 1977 industrial accident on the premises.

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The number of mishaps on the site may have been more commonplace than local residents realized. In a scathing 1983 letter to the Ventura Planning Commission, when it was considering the company’s proposal to vastly expand the plant, a former Petrochem employee explained the hazards she once observed regularly at the factory.

“Spills and mechanical breakdowns were so common,” wrote Sharon Alexander, “that we employees would play games to see who could predict the next one.”

USA Petroleum proposed a $100-million expansion in the early 1980s, but opposition from neighbors and letters such as Alexander’s succeeded in blocking the move. Because Petrochem’s profitability depended on the expansion, the company closed the factory doors in 1984.

Today, the once-bustling plant is empty and silent, its twisting pipes rusting, its monitoring equipment gathering dust in locked offices. The company tried for years to sell the land, but there were no takers.

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Some City Council members applauded the company’s latest proposal because they said it would force Petrochem to clear up any toxic hazards on the site. Plus, they added, anything would look better on North Ventura Avenue than a decaying old oil refinery.

“Let’s get that Petrochem site out of there,” said Councilman Gary Tuttle. “It’s a step in the right direction. I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t support them.”


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