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LOS ANGELES Sunday, November 29th 2015 10:27

LA Port: Risk Warnings Drowned Out by the Sound of Profits

VOICES - This is the sixth in a series of articles dealing with a potentially very dangerous facility, Rancho LPG Terminal on North Gaffey Street in San Pedro, nestled up against the Port of Los Angeles.

This 40-year old facility stores and ships 25 million gallons of liquid butane and 300,000 gallons of liquid propane.  Both gases are extremely volatile,   vaporizing within seconds or minutes on release, and expanding more than 200 times their volume as a liquid.  This creates a vapor cloud explosion, capable of killing people and destroying property.   

Both gases are very flammable, and, if they are ignited they will explode again and burn hot enough to melt steel.  Both gases are heavier than air, so they will not dissipate like natural gas, but will invisibly follow gravity.  The fires they create can’t be extinguished, except with some dry compounds which come in small fire extinguishers.  The advice from the experts like the American Petroleum Institute and the National Fire Protection Association is to let an LPG fire burn itself out.  

This facility is across the street from a Home Depot and about 1000 feet from homes – the homes were in existence before the LPG terminal was sited there.  You can see, I’m sure, understanding the properties of LPG, why the neighbors are worried about the site.  When you realize that it has not run a drill in the last ten years, to allow the Fire and Police Departments to think through how the nearby schools and homes might be evacuated, it’s no wonder that the neighbors are concerned.   It should never have been sited this close to homes, schools and businesses.

So, you might ask, “Then why is it there?”  Originally it was sited as a source of fuel gas in 1973, ostensibly to supply propane to the Southern California (natural) Gas system when there was a shortage.  The plan was to bring in propane by ship, store it at the site, then pipe or truck it out to insert in the Gas Company’s system.  

That business didn’t last very long, and the site now stores the butane in large refrigerated tanks of 25 million gallons for two oil refineries, BP/ARCO and Valero.  It also stores propane in five smaller horizontal, cylindrical tanks, 60,000 gallons each.  BP/ARCO and Valero produce butane when they refine crude oil.  

The butane becomes a component of gasoline, which helps the gasoline volatilize in the carburetor of the car engine.  But, because of its tendency to evaporate, it tends to leak out of the gas tank and of the engine and contribute to smog by becoming a cause of ozone, a pollutant standard we in the L.A. area still do not attain.  

So, the state Air Resources Board, regulates butane content of gasoline indirectly by regulating Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP).  (Vapor pressure is a measure of how ‘evaporateable’ a substance is.  Butane’s RVP is 52 psia [pounds per square inch absolute]; gasoline’s is about 10 psia on average.)    

Because evaporation occurs faster when it’s warm, the ARB has set a summer gasoline RVP standard at 7 psia.  In the winter chill gasoline needs more of the lighter components to evaporate in the carburetor, and so the winter RVP is 13 psia.  Refiners and gasoline blenders meet the RVP standards (which are legally enforced) by removing butane (with the high RVP) and adding it back in the winter.  This means they have to store the excess butane they make in the summer.   That’s where Rancho LPG comes in.   The excess butane is sent out by rail.

The butane comes from BP/ARCO and Valero refineries by buried pipeline to Rancho in the summer, where the amount stored gradually increases.  Then it is piped back to the two refineries in the fall and winter to be blended into gasoline.  I’m not sure whether BP/ARCO and Valero keep ownership (and therefore liability, in case of a release) of the butane.  This will matter, if and when there is a release, which, because of the properties of LPG, will be catastrophic.  

It also matters now, because by storing butane away from the BP/ARCO and Valero Refineries, they reduce their own liability, essentially farming it out to San Pedro.  That means that Carson, where BP is located, and Long Beach are safer, while San Pedro residents and the L.A. Port are put at risk.  Does this make sense to anyone?  

At a neighborhood meeting in 2004, called by the then-owners, Amerigas, some important facts came out.  Representatives from ARCO and Valero were present to explain why the facility was useful to them in producing gasoline, and invited members from the area were also there.  Mark Thomas was the Amerigas spokesperson (one of the few LPG representatives who seems to have been trustworthy.  In answer to a question he said the area affected by a tank failure is a 2.8 mile radius, which is close to the 3 mile radius produced by the official calculation found in the EPA Guidance.)

Mr. Thomas said that then 68% of their butane or 30-40 million gallons/year was going out by ship.  So, by calculation, the total terminal throughput was 55,000,000 gallons of butane/year.  That would leave about 20,000,000 gallons belonging to BP/ARCO and Valero.  

At the meeting Walter Neil, BP/ARCO Public Relations Manager, said that BP produces about 7 million gallons/day of gasoline; Steve Faichney of Valero said Valero makes about 3 million gallons per day.  So the 20,000,000 gallons of butane that travels back and forth from refinery to Rancho LPG is split roughly, 14 million to BP and 6 million to Valero.  

We have been asked what we want people to do who have been reading these articles.  We actually want a groundswell of concern born of reason and fairness to demand that law-makers (politicians and regulators) deal with this issue and remove Rancho LPG before it removes itself by blowing up and taking most of the southern part of Los Angeles County with it, along with millions of innocent lives.  

We realize getting that groundswell is going will take some doing.  In the meantime, some letters to the editors of your local papers would be helpful.   Another possibility is to stop buying ARCO (now Tesoro) and Valero gasoline.  Please think about it.  

(Janet Gunter is a long time community activist and member of the San Pedro Peninsula Homeowners United Inc.  Connie Rutter is a retired oil industry environmental consultant.  The SPPHU was one of the litigants in the successful China Shipping lawsuit that was represented by the NRDC in 2001-2003 on the issue of air pollution and aesthetics. )

Vol 10 Issue 66
Pub: Aug 17, 2012