Scores of angry residents and poster-toting students lost their bid Tuesday to scuttle a planned $6-million renovation of a controversial crude oil pumping operation in their West Pico neighborhood.
Protesters contended that the pumping facility is unsightly and may spew poisonous fumes throughout the tree-lined district. But Los Angeles zoning officials unanimously rejected an appeal that would have halted Breitburn Energy Co.'s plan to modernize the site at the corner of Doheny and West Pico boulevards.
The five members of the Board of Zoning Appeals said Breitburn’s upgrades actually would improve the neighborhood’s air quality by reducing diesel emissions and dispersing potentially hazardous fumes at an increased altitude. The changes, according to officials and some neighborhood residents who support the plan, also would decrease noise from the pumping station.
One zoning official even suggested that the improvements would promote national self-sufficiency.
“We’re all concerned about the high cost of fuel and being held hostage by OPEC,” said Board of Zoning Appeals member James Silcott. “We all remember the long gas lines of the ‘70s. Domestic drilling will go a long way toward solving those problems.”
The West Pico pumping station has sucked crude oil from beneath Beverly Hills and Los Angeles since 1965. The Breitburn company acquired the half-block site seven years ago.
The company now pumps about 1,200 barrels of oil a day, but hopes to triple that output with renovations. Most notably, Breitburn wants to replace its truck-mounted, diesel pumping and drilling rig with a permanent, electric-powered derrick. The company has proposed enclosing the derrick inside a 129-foot structure that resembles a bell tower and it promises to raise the wall surrounding the yard from 12 feet to 25 feet.
The rejection of Tuesday’s appeal is the most recent development in a prolonged battle.
The four-hour meeting drew more than 100 participants, and tensions flared between project opponents and area residents who strongly support the project.
Early in the proceeding, students from a neighborhood Jewish day school entered the room holding signs that read, “Don’t you care about us?” At other times, Board of Zoning Appeals Chairman Marvin Selter threatened to clear the hearing room of all spectators after noisy outbursts.
Despite the panel’s decision, opponents vowed to continue their fight against Breitburn in City Hall and in court.
Breitburn lawyer Greg Brown testified Tuesday that the station releases few harmful emissions and said the height of the proposed drilling tower would help disperse any fumes. Brown added that numerous conditions on the company’s permit required frequent monitoring of air quality and odors.
City Councilman Mike Feuer also spoke on behalf of the project, saying that it would reduce the facility’s overall cancer risk.
Besides expressing fears about pollution, some area residents objected to the plan on aesthetic grounds, saying the drilling tower was too high. “It’s sort of like putting a mountain in the middle of a prairie,” said opponent Paul Solomon.
Some critics said the pumping facility has no place in a densely populated neighborhood that hosts numerous schools, synagogues, shops and homes. Several suggested that it should be shut down.
Appeals board officials, though, said closure was not an option. Selter said the company would maintain its right to pump there even if the board had blocked the renovation plan.
Before the zoning panel’s vote, about a dozen residents who supported the upgrades spoke on behalf of the company’s permit. Residents like Max Whitehouse said he viewed Breitburn as a good neighbor and chided critics who knowingly purchased property near the oil site, only to complain about it after they moved in.
“If you don’t like chickens, don’t move next to a chicken ranch and then tell them how to do business,” Whitehouse said.