Councilman’s Fact Finding on Gas Hazards at LA’s Port … Short on Facts

PORT TRAGEDY WAITING TO HAPPEN - Although the recent City Council Safety Committee hearing, called for by Councilman Joe Buscaino on June 27 was described by his office as a ‘fact-finding’ effort, there were many facts that didn’t come out.  

Although the public outcry has concerned the ultra hazardous LPG facility, Rancho LLC, on North Gaffey Street, the Councilman saw fit to include all hazardous tankage in Council District 15.

As a result, 2 ½ hours of the hearing were devoted to discussions by representatives of Federal, state and local agencies, talking to the Council members about their specialized pieces of authority over hazardous materials in general.            

To group an LPG Terminal with other refineries and oil terminals is misleading; it’s a matter of the degree of hazard.  Gasoline, the next most volatile material after LPG, will not cause an explosive pressure wave the way LPG does.  Gasoline will stay in a tank and evaporate relatively slowly, whereas LPG (butane and propane) will vaporize within seconds or minutes.  LPG and gasoline will both burn readily, but gasoline fires can be extinguished by using fire-fighting foam, but foam hastens the vaporization of LPG, by warming the remaining liquid.  LPG is ultra-hazardous – gasoline is just hazardous.  

During the agency explanations, community members, who had packed the auditorium to discuss their concerns, were not allowed to take part in the discussion.  After the agency representatives had talked among themselves, they left, and the Councilman  allowed the public to speak, with a strictly enforced two-minute limit for each speaker.  This consumed a little over half an hour, since there were no questions from Council members, some of whom had already left.  The absence of agency representatives resulted in the public’s not being able to question the agencies, and the agency representatives not hearing the public’s concerns.  

These are some of the questions or comments I would have made, if I had been given some time and opportunity to address the agencies.  Taking them in the order of their seriousness, as they relate to this site:

●To the representative of the Harbor Commissioners/Port of LA.  (Actually, they weren’t even part of the hearing.)  Most importantly, do they realize the damage to port property that an explosion at this facility would cause?  The calculation that the EPA has sanctioned in their regulations of risk (40 CFR 68) puts the minimum ‘worst case’ radius of a blast at three miles around the Rancho facility.  This takes in most, if not all, of the port!   

How do they justify continuing to sustain the Rancho site, when it’s a threat to the very port they are supposed to protect and promote?  At a recent hearing of the Harbor Commissioners there was a motion from its Port Community Advisory Committee to revoke the Rancho revocable rail permit until a risk assessment could be performed and the rail traffic could be judged safe.  

The Port’s justification for keeping the rail permit in place was given in the staff report as preserving a million dollars worth of insurance from Rancho and annual income of $14,000!  

A million dollars of insurance wouldn’t cover the first accident of an exploding rail car!  

Besides, they wouldn’t need the insurance, if they didn’t permit such a dangerous cargo movement within their facility.  And $14,000 a year is hardly worth the lives and property put at risk. The Harbor Commissioners rejected the PCAC motion and the rail permit is retained.        

● To the representative of LA city planners,  How could it have happened that this facility (Petrolane, back in 1973) was allowed to locate where it did without someone looking up the properties of LPG?  Was there such an investigation?  How do the planners rate dangerous materials now?  What was the basis for the exemption from a city building permit?  How extensive is the investigation behind the permitting process now before such a dangerous (toxic or flammable/explosive) facility is allowed to be built within 1000 feet of homes and other businesses?  

It would make a great deal of sense, if the calculations required by the EPA in relation to risk found in 40 CFR 68 were done in reverse.  That is, if a facility requested a building permit in the city, the Building and Safety Department should evaluate the risk to determine the area of impact in a ‘worst case’ release, according to the EPA guidance and specify that there must be no other development within the radius of potential damage before or after a permit is issued.    

● To the representative of the EPA, What is the process for approving Risk Management Plans?  Rancho, the current owner/operator of the LPG site, has submitted an extremely defective RMP, specifically in its chief component, the ‘Worst Case Analysis,’ which simply repeated the results of the previous operator, Amerigas, in which it was erroneously reported that a 57,000,000 pound release of butane (one tank) would result in just a ½ mile radius explosion with 770 people killed.  The actual number is a three-mile radius with an estimated 27,000 people killed, according to the calculation for TNT equivalency found in the EPA Guidance.  

So, the basic questions for the EPA is – what’s going on?  At the meeting conducted by Janice Hahn, on May 24, she made a point of asking the EPA  representative, Jared Blumenfeld “Then there’s nothing in the EPA regs. that labels a site too dangerous, and that it should therefore be shut down?”   

He agreed that that was true.  This is a major defect in the EPA regulations, and should be amended.  But, at least, the RMP should be accurate!  

Why hasn’t Rancho yet been required to submit an accurate RMP?  Is it because the EPA would then be liable for approving an RMP that accepts the deaths of 27,000 people and billions of dollars of property damage?  Why hasn’t Rancho at least been required to run a drill which involves the public agencies, Fire and Police, who would have the major burden of evacuating the community, including five or more schools within the blast zone?     

● Both FedOSHA and CalOSHA  should have been ashamed to report that they had conducted only 12 or 15 inspections each in the state during the previous year!  That’s roughly one inspection a month!  

● The Fire Department representative from CUPA, apparently had so little experience with his agency that he misstated what the initials stand for.  He said it was Certified Unified Public Agency – but it’s Program.  CUPA was an attempt on the part of the state legislature to simplify dealing with hazard.  

Previously, there were over-lapping jurisdictions under the state Department of Toxic Substances, the state Water Resources Control Board and the Regional Water Boards, etc.  

But this solution hasn’t worked out very well, because the latest version of the attempt to regulate hazard is under CalARP, Accidental Release Prevention, under the jurisdiction of whichever local agencies (“Administering Agencies,” usually fire departments,) have picked up parts of the program.    

● Finally, the representative from the AQMD, Mohsen Nazimi, rather down-played the violations his agency had found in an inspection.  From the AQMD enforcement records a reading of 100,000 ppm hydrocarbon was recorded during an inspection.  This translates to 10% butane or propane, which is just slightly higher than the top flammability limit, so they’re lucky they didn’t have a small fire.  

An LPG facility should not be located any closer to other facilities or homes than the risk calculations in the EPA Guidance for a ‘worst case’ would determine as safe.  (For instance, if the butane tanks at Rancho were sized this way, the closest neighbor, Home Depot, is about 500 feet away, so the limit of LPG which could be stored is under 2000 lbs or 400 gal.)  

Often, when we make our case for the ultra-hazardous nature of this facility, regulators and political figures have asked what we think should be done.  The answer is obvious – this LPG facility should be closed or moved to a location at least six miles (to account for two butane tanks) away from the possibility of contact with homes or businesses.  And, in fairness, the workers who man the site and the truck drivers should be given hazard pay.  

There is no way to make LPG safe.  If the impound basin were large enough to hold even one tank, after butane expands, it would have to be almost ¾ mile deep to hold the expanded vapor!  Or, if we asked for a wall around the facility to hold the vapor phase of one tank, it would have to be 445 ft. high!  If instead of that, the impound basin stayed the same depth, 17 ft., Rancho would have to buy 500 additional acres to hold the vapor.  And this doesn’t even consider the fact that the vapor would still ignite and explode a second time.  

What do we want?  That this very real threat should be shut down or moved to an isolated area.  How long must we wait for informed, conscientious and responsible leadership?   

(Connie Rutter is a retired oil industry environmental consultant and a member of Citizens for Responsible & Equal Environmental Protection (CREEP) She can be reached at:

Vol 10 Issue 58
Pub: July 20, 2012