When Porter Ranch was born, huge gas wells weren’t part of the conversation

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I searched through three boxes of environmental impact reports written in the 1970s and on, to find out if natural gas tanks were mentioned in all the plans to create Porter Ranch. But there was  no mention. Decades later, nearly 100,000 of metric tons of natural gas leaked from a well. Months later, the community still wonder about its health effects. From my story (Daily News,  Jan 17, 2016):

They fought over future traffic jams and air pollution, feared depletion of water supplies, and worried about how sewage lines and landfills would become so strained it would thrust Los Angeles’ sanitation system into Third World conditions.

But within environmental impact reports that outlined a plan for 3,395 homes that would become the Porter Ranch development, and amid heated debates between San Fernando Valley residents, developers and city leaders, there were no obvious references to a massive natural gas storage facility that is about a mile away on county land from the project site.

The 1,300-acre Porter Ranch development was approved by the City Council in 1990 and became known as one of the biggest housing and commercial projects in Los Angeles’ history.

Now, as Southern California Gas Co. struggles to plug a massive methane leak at its Aliso Canyon storage facility that has sickened and displaced thousands of Porter Ranch residents, local and state leaders who have toured the neighborhoods have asked how such a housing project could have been approved in the first place.

“It was never brought up,” said former Los Angeles City Councilman Greig Smith of the gas storage facility. Smith was the aide to former councilman Hal Bernson, who held the seat from 1979 to 2003. Bernson’s district included the northwest San Fernando Valley, and he was seen as the main champion of the Porter Ranch development. His stance drew so much ire that at least one community group tried to have him recalled.

“The few people who lived there knew it was there,” Smith said. “There were no odors and no problems. Everybody pretty much perceived it as an amazing facility and it was safe.”

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Protesters from 350.org, Food and Water Watch LA, SoCal 350 and others, staged a protest on the property of the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility in Porter Ranch Sunday. The group shut down the entrance to the facility for 3 hours before peacefully leaving the property. (Photo by David Crane/Southern California News Group)
NO OBVIOUS REFERENCE

In some ways, that’s true. Residents knew about the gas storage facility constructed in the early 1970s. In the past, fires had broken out there, including one in 1974 that burned for days. The flames could be seen at night from most parts of the Valley.

Yet in environmental impact reports, maps, letters and supplements released by the Porter Ranch Development Co. in the late 1980s and early ’90s, there are no obvious references to the natural gas storage facility.

Instead the summaries all describe the setting of where the project would be built, below the southern slopes of the Santa Susana Mountains and above Chatsworth, in the undeveloped northwestern portion of Porter Ranch. The $2 billion project would include 3,395 homes planned for up to 11,000 people, 6 million square feet of commercial and retail space, and an expected 150,602 vehicle trips per day in the area.

In one supplement, a vague question is asked about whether the Porter Ranch project poses a risk of an explosion or the release of hazardous substances, including oil, pesticides, chemicals or radiation in the event of an accident.

 

“These areas of impact were reviewed in the March 1988 initial study and were determined not to be significant therein since the subject property is not known to contain any substances,” according to the response.

An abandoned oil field with 115 wells, the Aliso Canyon storage facility became the second largest in the nation when it was re-purposed in the 1970s, with a capacity to hold 86 billion cubic feet of natural gas.

The fact is, neither the old oil wells nor that natural gas facility had to be mentioned in those environmental impact reports, said Bob Duenas, a senior city planner based in the San Fernando Valley. Duenas said the wells would be included if the housing project was to have an impact on them, but not the other way around.

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NOT REQUIRED TO STUDY RISK

For the most part, he’s right, said Kevin Bundy, senior attorney for the conservation organization theCenter for Biological Diversity.

Bundy said the California Supreme Court recently reaffirmed that under the California Environmental Quality Act, an analysis of the impacts of existing environmental conditions on a project’s future residents is not required.

“You don’t need to look at the effect of the existing hazard on residents, unless the development is going to exacerbate that existing hazard,” Bundy said.

Unless the homes were going to destabilize the gas storage facility or make any future hazards worse, it didn’t have to be included, Bundy added.

“From our perspective, that’s a real problem,” Bundy said. “The public officials need to know the risk of building near these industrial sites. Going forward, I think this is exactly the kind of hazard the public and decision lawmakers need to pay attention to.”

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FEW KNEW IT WAS THERE

Many Chatsworth and Northridge residents unsuccessfully opposed the Porter Ranch plan in the 1990s, saying they were concerned particularly about the projected 150,000 daily car trips generated by the development and how traffic would affect streets in communities south of the Ronald Reagan Freeway. Groups such as the Chatsworth and United chambers of commerce, the Southern California Association of Governments, South Coast Air Quality Management District, former state lawmakers, the Los Angeles Unified School District, and even a retired director of planning, all expressed concern about air quality, traffic and a need for more schools.

Walter Prince, one of the members of the group Porter Ranch Developed Enough, or PRIDE, said he remembers hearing about the natural gas storage facility. But it wouldn’t have mattered, he said.

“I know damn well that somebody brought it up,” Prince said. “Having said that, it was not a big issue. Very few people knew the thing was up there. It was outside the city, outside the sphere of influence.”

Residents weren’t opposed to the Porter Ranch development, Prince said. But they were angered by the scope of it, including a plan to construct tall commercial buildings that would rival Century City. PRIDE sued the city over approving the development, but the case was never brought to court.

The group also worked to recall Bernson, who was seen as having been heavily influenced by developerNathan Shapell, who owned the Porter Ranch Development Co. Bernson remained on the council despite news stories that reported he received more than $50,000 from Shapell’s companies.

Shapell died in 2007 and his company was sold to developers the Toll Brothers. Bernson, who lives in Chatsworth, could not be reached for comment.

Even if there had been more focus on the gas storage facility, the project would have moved forward because of the City Council and especially Bernson, Prince said.

“Hal Bernson was the best spokesman for the project,” Prince said. “He promoted that project. He was the go-to guy if you wanted it done. Without him, I doubt that the project would have happened.”

Roger Strull, who also was a member of PRIDE, said his group was more concerned about traffic and existing fault lines under the proposed plan. He said he attended dozens of meetings, spent hours on the telephone and going door-to-door in an effort to recall Bernson, but never heard about the gas wells.

“Nobody was ever aware of it as an issue,” Strull said. “I think it wasn’t even a factor. Nobody bothered to do the research. I have an extraordinary memory and to the best of my recollection no one ever mentioned it.”

Staff writer Dakota Smith contributed to this report.

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