San Fernando Valley neighbors of natural gas facility raise concerns about overhaul

Wes Rogers used a garden hose to fight flames from the 2008 Sesnon fire that had reached the fence of his home in the northwest San Fernando Valley.

The memory of the blaze, caused by a downed Southern California Gas Co. electrical distribution wire, is raw. And that has made the utility's plan to revamp its natural gas storage facility in Aliso Canyon a tough sell to residents wary of another fire in the same bushy hills north of Porter Ranch.

According to the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, power lines were suspected in or blamed for four of the 20 largest wildfires in California history, including the Sesnon blaze, which blackened 14,703 acres, destroyed 15 homes and dozens of outbuildings, and remains the suspected cause of a fatal car crash on the 118 Freeway. SoCalGas is in litigation with property owners who suffered losses over whether its power line was responsible.

Rogers and fellow residents want the gas company's project suspended until the litigation is resolved, and they charge that the company has continued to be lax clearing brush around its lines and poles.

"I've already experienced one fire in my life. I don't want another," said Lisa Solana, 51, whose Summerset Village apartment in Chatsworth was deemed uninhabitable after the Sesnon blaze. She said she lost about $60,000 in personal property.

"These guys are very cavalier about their safety practices up there," Rogers said.

SoCalGas, which has 20 million customers in Central and Southern California, said it is proceeding cautiously.

"We are taking any and all steps we need to take to protect our customers, the community and our facility," said Rick Morrow, the company's vice president of engineering and operations staff.

The $200-million project proposed for the utility's 3,600-acre natural gas storage field involves replacing obsolete gas turbines with more efficient electric pumps used to inject gas into the ground. Upgraded power lines stretching over the once-scorched hills would be installed to provide electricity to the improved facility, according to gas company officials.

The storage facility allows the gas company to stash natural gas underground when prices are lower and tap into it when prices and demand are high. This helps protect customers against price spikes, maintain reliable natural gas supplies and meet demand, Morrow said.

But not all residents have been convinced by the gas company's pitch for quieter, more efficient equipment, said Judith Daniels, president of the Chatsworth Neighborhood Council Board of Directors.

"There is still too much brush," she said.

Rogers, who lives on Limekiln Canyon Road, near where the Sesnon fire is believed to have started, has filed a protest against the gas project with the California Public Utilities Commission, the state regulatory agency that issues permits for construction of certain natural gas and electrical facilities.

Gas company and commission officials have held meetings about the project in neighborhoods such as Porter Ranch, Chatsworth and Granada Hills North, which border Aliso Canyon. Another meeting is scheduled for Tuesday at Valley Country Club in Porter Ranch.

County and city officials have called on the gas company to make safety a priority.

"We expect the gas company to comply to the letter with all safety and fire prevention requirements," said Los Angeles Councilman Greig Smith, who represents the communities of the northwest San Fernando Valley.

Tony Bell, spokesman for Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, whose district includes Aliso Canyon, said Antonovich had "serious concerns" about the project.

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