L.A. Port Wants to Relocate Fuel Sites
Amid fears that waterfront tank farms may become terrorists’ targets, the Port of Los Angeles is seeking to move at least two major cargo terminals for jet fuel and other hazardous materials away from San Pedro and Wilmington neighborhoods.
Port officials are focusing on potential new sites off the populated coast, looking both at heavily industrialized Terminal Island, and at the new and sprawling harbor landfill area called Pier 400, about a mile southeast of San Pedro.
The search marks a significant change in the relationship between port authorities, who have traditionally defended such industrial tenants, and residents who have long complained about the sites where vessels load and unload such volatile substances as methanol for buses and propane for backyard barbecues.
“We’re not going to turn our backs on the community and elected officials,” said Larry Keller, executive director of the 7,500-acre port complex. “We have begun looking for suitable new sites.”
He said he thinks relocation could be accomplished in five years. But finding new sites won’t be easy or cheap.
Pollution cleanups at the current locations would cost untold millions of dollars. New sites would have to pass tough environmental reviews, and be outfitted with expensive underground pipelines. The locations would need access to docks, rail lines for trains and roads for trucks.
Janice Hahn, the port area’s representative on the Los Angeles City Council, has been pushing hard for relocation, which she believes could reduce the chances of an accidental or terrorism-related tragedy.
On Tuesday, striding past San Pedro’s Westway Terminal Co., where tanker trucks were being loaded with flammable methanol fuel and fingernail polish remover, she said, “I’m hoping if there is a relocation, it’s as far away from the residential communities as is physically possible.”
She and area residents wanted that well before the Sept. 11 terrorism in hopes of attracting development more compatible with adjacent residential and business areas. Port officials said that some tentative discussions were underway in August, but that the pressure intensified in the last two months. “Now that we know they could become targeted for attack, are they still compatible uses of our waterfront?” Hahn asked.
She has the support of her brother, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn. “I want it to happen, and I think it will,” he said Tuesday about the relocations. “We want to make the port more environmentally friendly to the people who live and work in and around it.”
The two facilities in question, now owned by Westway and Kinder Morgan Energy Partners Inc., have operated for about 70 years at the port, which has the largest concentration of volatile products in the city. Both companies said they would consider relocating, but said it would be difficult and costly.
Westway stores mostly nonflammable coconut oil, candle wax and lard at its tank farm, next to the port’s commercial fishing markets. But it also handles gasoline for propeller airplanes, methanol fuel for Los Angeles buses, and additives for glues, paint and fingernail polish remover.
The port has begun preliminary talks with the company about the logistic challenges involved in moving to Terminal Island, about a mile across the Los Angeles Main Channel. But Westway President Peter Harding said he hopes to retain at least the operations that handle nonflammable materials at the current location.
“Moving the flammable materials to Terminal Island makes sense to us, in terms of national security,” he said. “But if we do that, we’ll need a dock for vessels to load and unload, rail tracks for trains, and lots of pumps and tanks.”
Harding estimated that moving just the flammable operations would cost in the neighborhood of $25 million to $30 million and take about two years to complete.
“We don’t have $25 million in our bank account,” he said, “so we’d be looking to the port for help to make this relocation happen.”
Relocating Kinder Morgan’s liquid bulk terminal for receiving and exporting gasoline, diesel fuel and jet fuel, would cost “in the tens of millions of dollars,” said company spokesman Larry Pierce.
The northeast San Pedro facility uses five pipelines running from the wharf to storage tanks that have a total capacity of 574,000 barrels, at 42 gallons a barrel. At its 821-foot berth, vessels from as far away as Ecuador and China offload petroleum products, which are pumped to refineries and markets across Southern California, as well as Phoenix and Las Vegas.
The berth is surrounded by a chain-link fence rimmed with barbed-wire and covered with large orange and black signs warning of the flammable and cancer-causing chemicals on the premises. Other signs advise visitors to park their vehicles “facing out” to facilitate escape in an emergency.
“Just beneath the surface of the place is an incredibly complex network of pipelines connected to local refineries, all of which would have to be replaced elsewhere,” Pierce said. “There would also have to be an environmental cleanup afterward. It is way too early in the process to even speculate who would pay for that.”
In contrast, Long Beach has not faced similar problems because its port did not grow up near homes and has deeper channels leading to oil terminals, which are generally not in cramped parts of the inner harbor.
Critics of the tank farms said their fears are based on past accidents.
In the early morning of June 22, 1947, the 11,323-ton vessel Markay exploded with about 25,000 barrels of fuel aboard. The blast in San Pedro killed a dozen men, sent the ship to the bottom, caused $10 million damage and blew out windows five miles away.
In 1972, a fire that destroyed 17 storage tanks and injured 50 firemen contaminated 1 1/2 acres of a former GATX Corp. terminal annex at 22nd and Miner streets.
On Dec. 17, 1976, the 38,562-ton oil tanker Sansinena exploded at a Union Oil terminal in south San Pedro, killing nine sailors, causing $21.6 million damage and rattling buildings more than 45 miles away.
John Gibson, who was Los Angeles City Council president at that time, was home in bed in San Pedro. The force of the Sansinena shock rolled his bed across his room and into a dresser. Gibson and other city officials soon organized a task force that recommended that all oil and gas facilities should be built on Terminal Island or that a landfill “energy island” be created for them to the south.
Those ideas were included in the 1979 Port Master Plan, which said that about half of 395-acre Pier 400 should be set aside for the relocation of hazardous liquid cargo facilities.
Instead, the port in 1998 leased all but 15 acres of Pier 400 to Maersk Inc. for a container terminal.
Noel Park of the San Pedro Peninsula Homeowners Coalition was pleased about the new relocation talks. “We applaud anything which can reduce the risk to the communities, but we reserve our right to review and comment on whatever it is the port says it will do,” he said.
Port Commissioner Camilla Townsend Kocol, who has strong ties to local neighborhoods, expressed cautious optimism.
“I’m hoping this is the real thing--and for a lot of reasons I think it is,” she said. “Even before Sept. 11, the community had been mobilizing and becoming more educated about port issues. On top of that, we now have an administration in City Hall that really listens to the community.”
Meanwhile, just a mile north of Westway, change already is underway at the long neglected seaside Ports O’ Call Village, where some dilapidated buildings are being razed to provide waterfront views. Plans call for adding an amphitheater and installing a pedestrian bridge linking the eclectic cluster of shops and restaurants with downtown San Pedro.
San Pedro activist Janet Schaaf-Gunter is among many residents who believe such enhancements are threatened by having Westway as a neighbor.
“Relocation of Westway should be on a fast track,” she said. “It needs to be out of there now. All of it. The flammable stuff and the lard.”