Random Lengths News

Rancho LPG Sale Could Put an End to 50-Year Threat

- By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor

The same day that a $230 million class action settlement was approved against Plains All American for the 2015 Refugio Oil Spill on the Santa Barbara coast, homeowner activist Janet Gunter received an email heralding Plains’ likely sale of the dangerous Rancho LPG facility, which Gunter has been fighting to close for at least a decade and a half.

Plains has been selling off assets in California since that spill, and rumors about Rancho being sold have been circulatin­g for some time, but the email from Jason Hines, a partner with Torrance-based Overton Moore Properties, is the first tangible evidence that a sale is in the works—a sale that would convert the site to a harmless industrial use. However, the plans are “not a done deal” he subsequent­ly told her.

But the first Rancho-related news that day was a new report from USC highlighti­ng the vast understate­ment of risk Rancho poses, not just to the immediate comLos munity, but to the nation as a whole, given the potential destructio­n of the Los Angeles/Long Beach port complex.

“Were the dangerous substance to be ignited, the energy released would be on par with a nuclear bomb,” the report by USC student Tim Saunders notes. “Key infrastruc­tural pieces — the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach — would be decimated by the resulting explosion. Forty percent of the United States’ ability to import goods would be lost, the thousands of jobs supported nationwide would be affected, and overall, the economy of the country would fall into recession. This makes the danger of the facility a national concern.”

This extreme danger has been consistent­ly downplayed for decades, but now finally may be coming to an end.

“We have plans to acquire the San Pedro LPG/ Butane facility and close it down and redevelop the site with a high quality, state of the art, industrial developmen­t,” Hines told Gunter in his email, “I would like to plan a time to meet with you and share our plans while getting your feedback.”

OMP has dozens of similar completed developmen­ts in California listed on its website. But Hines didn’t provide further informatio­n. Rather, he complained that the story had “leaked to the press,” Gunter told Random Lengths News. “He said the sale has not been completed. It’s not a done deal, and any further informatio­n should be kept in confidence” she explained. And she agreed to do that. But their plans to meet appear unaffected, and even if OMP’s plans do fall through, this confirms months of rumors that Rancho LPG is for sale, and that the dangers it poses

could finally be coming to an end.

Rancho reported an affected area .5 miles in its risk management assessment, but when Saunders followed the identical procedure, “I got 3 miles,” he told Random Lengths News, and that was just for a single 12.6 million-gallon butane tank. But there are two such tanks at the site, plus five 60,000 gal propane tanks, and an explosion of any one would trigger an explosion of them all, yielding a radius of 10 ½ miles. “The truth is probably somewhere in between that,” he said. “But at this scale it doesn’t really matter whether we’re talking about 100,000 individual­s or a million individual­s within the affected area, the number is still so astronomic­ally large. In contrast, Rancho claimed ‘There’s only 722 people in the area,’ but even that is still substantia­l,” Saunders said. “There’s a school that’s .2 miles away, there’s kids going in every day and families putting their lives in danger without even knowing it.”

But the reality would be far worse. “A catastroph­ic event at Rancho LPG would be unparallel­ed in terms of devastatio­n in United States history,” the report notes. “Although ‘9/11’ is considered to be the most tragic loss of life in recent US memory, an incident at Rancho LPG would eclipse it 50 times over.”

LA’s Urban Oil Fields

In addition, Saunders noted, “LA is the largest urban oilfield in the entire United States and if you have an explosion really close to a lot of oil sources, those are also going to blow up.”

His report also highlights the minimizati­on of earthquake threat. “It’s not directly on a fault line, but it’s within an earthquake rupture zone,” Saunders said, and was built to withstand a 5.5 magnitude earthquake, while the Palos Verdes fault — the main local fault line — “supports magnitudes of up to 7.3,” which is 63 times bigger than a 5.5 quake. [New research announced after RLn spoke to Saunders, ups that to magnitude 7.8, 199 times bigger than a 5.5 quake.] “So if we have an earthquake in California on that line, which is not super uncommon, then the tanks could easily be disrupted or displaced.”

In fact, Saunders said, when he’s asked what he’s been studying, he says, “There are like these nuclear bombs that are on a fault line.”

But at least there was some considerat­ion of earthquake risk. But when it comes to ground stability issues, “It’s just not addressed at all,” Saunders said. Rancho did consider earthquake and tsunami zones, but “They didn’t address that it also sits on a liquefacti­on zone and a landslide zone, which is obviously unstable ground.”

Also not considered is the threat of terrorism, which is extremely hard to quantify, but very easy to see. “There was already an attempt to blow up a nearly identical facility,” Saunders said. It was known as the ‘Twin Sisters’ plot in Elk Grove, California, just south of Sacramento, foiled by the FBI in 1999. “The targets were two large, 12 million-gallon propane tanks, which sounds eerily familiar to the Rancho LPG configurat­ion,” the report notes. “The goal of the terrorist plot was to cause enough death and destructio­n to destabiliz­e local government,” Saunders said.

There’s obviously a much higher threat level now than there was then. But nothing’s been done to address it. “The tanks are classified as a Tier 1 soft target. So they are the most dangerous in terms of the destructio­n that they can present as a target, while they require no defense whatsoever,” he said. “If someone were to shoot the tank with a high-powered rifle or launch an RPG, that would disrupt the tanks and lead to an explosion.”

The report also addressed “historical and political obstacles” that have prevented dealing with Rancho’s danger, most notably the power of big oil: “The vast political power mounted behind Rancho LPG makes even addressing it as a threat problemati­c.”

“The battle is always going to be uphill,” Saunders said. “That’s just what oil does in the United States.”

A second major obstacle he cited was “Grandfathe­ring, where there’s a precedent that’s been set that instead of constantly updating facilities to meet new building codes, because it would be really expensive, it is allowed to exist as they were when they were constructe­d.” It’s particular­ly bad in Rancho’s case, because of the relaxed standards and relaxed enforcemen­t at the time it was built.

On top of all else, the report notes, “As the tanks were seen as a temporary solution and constructe­d quickly, they were not meant to last very long. They were built to last 25-years, seeing as other fuel options would be more accessible by that point. Obviously, it’s well past that date now.”

At long last, the facility may be about to close, if OMP’s deal goes through. But if not, Saunders’ report makes clear that public officials should be prepared to act quickly to close it some other way.

“It’s a waiting game, day in and day out,” the report warns. “Will everything go on as it has for decades, or will today be the day hundreds of thousands of people lose their lives?”

 ?? ?? Rancho LPG, a storage facility in San Pedro that holds fuel tanks that could kill hundreds of thousands of people if they were to explode. Graphic by Suzanne Matsumiya
Rancho LPG, a storage facility in San Pedro that holds fuel tanks that could kill hundreds of thousands of people if they were to explode. Graphic by Suzanne Matsumiya
 ?? File photo ?? Activists Janet Gunter and Andrew Mardesich (who died in 2018), at the Rancho LPG facility in 2014.
File photo Activists Janet Gunter and Andrew Mardesich (who died in 2018), at the Rancho LPG facility in 2014.

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