Beirut blast reinforces longtime fears about San Pedro site



For decades, San Pedro residents have feared the massive tanks that store butane just off Gaffey Street could fuel deadly fires and explosions close to homes, shops and schools.

Neighbors have fought unsuccessfully in court and pressed their case with local, state and federal officials, but the San Pedro site has persisted through years of public hearings, government reports and competing assessments of its risks.

When a massive explosion devastated Beirut last month, residents said the shocking footage only reinforced their long-standing fears. The Los Angeles Unified School District invoked the Beirut blast in a recent letter to the L.A. Fire Department, calling for a new assessment of the site’s vulnerability during an earthquake.

And a congresswoman is pushing for a new analysis of its risks. The Beirut explosion “absolutely adds urgency to these efforts,” said Ron Eckstein, spokesman for Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-San Pedro).

Plains All American Pipeline, whose subsidiary Rancho LPG Holdings owns the site, rejects such a comparison. It stresses that the tanks store a different material than what fueled the Beirut blast, which was sparked by ammonium nitrate.

The Beirut incident happened “at a completely different facility than the Rancho facility,” which “was designed, built and is maintained in accordance with local, state and federal requirements” and “is audited numerous times annually by multiple jurisdictional agencies to confirm compliance,” said Steve Greig, the company’s government affairs director.

The Rancho LPG storage facility includes two 12.5-million-gallon refrigerated tanks and five 60,000-gallon horizontal storage tanks. Liquid gas comes to and from the facility by rail, truck and pipeline. The refrigerated tanks are roughly a quarter-mile from the nearest homes, based on aerial maps; a Home Depot, a preschool and soccer fields sit closer.

Concerns about the facility arose soon after it was built in the 1970s. L.A.’s fire marshal told The Times it was “one of our gravest concerns.” Neighbors sued unsuccessfully over the San Pedro facility in 1978, arguing that it posed a nuisance.

That same year, the U.S. comptroller general reported to Congress that new facilities like it should be relegated to remote areas and that existing ones in populated areas should not be expanded in size or in use. It warned that “if liquefied energy gases spill from their tanks, they vaporize rapidly and become highly flammable and explosive.”

The San Pedro site handles the largest amount of butane of any facility in California, according to a database maintained by the Right to Know Network using Environmental Protection Agency data. It also holds some propane. Neighborhood groups have argued that an earthquake or terror attack could rupture the tanks and lead to catastrophic explosions.

Much of the debate has revolved around just how dire a disaster could be: One assessment by Cornerstone Technologies, solicited by a San Pedro neighborhood group, concluded a blast could reach as far as 6.8 miles away.

An analysis by risk management consultant Carl Southwell, done when he was a doctoral student at USC, estimated that thousands of lives could be lost if terrorists took aim at the tanks.

The Beirut explosion “immediately reminded me of Rancho LPG,” said Southwell, now president of the consulting firm InsureTech. Based on his calculations of its explosive potential, “it could actually be much worse.”

Rancho LPG Holdings has rejected such predictions and instead cited an analysis by Quest Consultants that dismissed the Cornerstone conclusions and estimated that damage from any explosion would be much more limited, potentially reaching 700 feet around the San Pedro site.

The Environmental Protection Agency has accepted company estimates that the blast radius could stretch half a mile; an analysis performed for the agency by a Michigan professor called many of the dire predictions from Cornerstone “technically invalid.”

At a public hearing three years ago, a facility representative said the EPA had found that “our butane facility is one of the safest butane facilities, simply because we refrigerate the butane.” An EPA spokeswoman said that the blast distance from the Rancho LPG site would be reduced by an existing containment basin to catch spills.

Others have disputed that: Earthjustice staff attorney Adrian Martinez argued in a letter to the agency that the basin would be “wholly ineffective” to catch spilled butane because it would warm up and vaporize.

Decades earlier, the California Public Utilities Commission raised concerns that the basin was too small to hold the contents of both refrigerated tanks.

The basin could help prevent liquid from spreading to other parts of the facility, “but it doesn’t mean that you won’t — very, very quickly — have a large vapor cloud,” said Don Holmstrom, former director of the Western Regional Office for the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, a federal agency that investigates chemical accidents. Holmstrom said that in the case of a catastrophic spill, he found it hard to believe that the damage would extend only half a mile.

Professor Stewart Behie, interim director of the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center at Texas A&M University, said it did not appear that the blast estimate of half a mile had adequately accounted for what would happen if a tank were fully ruptured and a vapor cloud arose from the surface of all the spilled liquid.

Nor, he said, had the estimate accounted for the domino effects if rail cars or tanker trucks were engulfed in a fire from one ruptured tank.

Behie said he wasn’t convinced that “their worst case is really the worst case.”

The L.A. Fire Department program that oversees hazardous materials said it has no current concerns about the safety of the Rancho facility. The department said it had cited the facility three years ago for two violations — including failing to document that equipment designed or constructed under outdated standards was operating safely — but characterized both as minor and said they had been corrected.

Disasters elsewhere have repeatedly spurred concerns about the San Pedro site. The most notorious was in 1984 at a liquid petroleum gas facility in San Juanico outside Mexico City, where explosions destroyed homes and killed hundreds. After a pipeline explosion in San Bruno a decade ago, local and federal lawmakers called for more scrutiny of the L.A. facility.

Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino introduced a flurry of motions about the butane tanks after he was first elected; one resulted in a public hearing and a report from city analysts, but most expired without action. Rep. Barragán sought federal funding to move the tanks; the bill she introduced two years ago stalled in committee.

Eckstein, her spokesman, said that Barragán still wants to pursue a legislative route to closing or relocating the facility, but in the meantime she has been seeking an EPA risk analysis of the site through the federal budget process.

And the Los Angeles Unified School District, whose board has called to relocate the facility, recently reiterated a February request to get an updated seismic study of the San Pedro facility in light of new information about the Wilmington fault running underneath the harbor.

LAFD, however, said it did not plan to ask Rancho to redo that analysis unless an expert determined that an earthquake along that fault would be bigger than the one on the Palos Verdes fault reflected in its last assessment. The last analysis, completed a year ago, “appears to more than adequately demonstrate compliance” with seismic requirements, it said.

Some balked at likening the risks to the Beirut disaster. Buscaino, who said he had insisted the site comply with municipal and state regulations, argued that it was “impossible to compare” the situation, saying that the Rancho tanks are regulated by more than a dozen agencies and “practice multiple levels of safety protocols.”

L.A. “would never by deliberate action or inaction allow the economic engines of our state to be decimated so recklessly as what happened in Beirut,” Buscaino said.

Such statements gall San Pedro Peninsula Homeowners United member Janet Schaaf-Gunter, who said she found them “hypocritical.” She pointed out that months before the Beirut disaster, downtown L.A. was rocked by a massive explosion that burned firefighters — a blast that originated in an area where butane canisters were known to be stored.

When she watches the chaotic scenes in Beirut, “I know that I’m looking at our future,” Schaaf-Gunter said.

Although Plains All American Pipeline maintains that the San Pedro site is safe, Greig said the company would cooperate if government agencies pursued a new risk assessment. San Pedro resident Robert Farrell, a former L.A. city councilman concerned about the site, said he hoped such an analysis would help settle the back-and-forth over its risks.

“People are oblivious to the danger it represents,” Farrell said. Government agencies will not move swiftly “unless a real threat is seen as imminent.”