Described as a "ticking time bomb," San Pedro's Rancho LPG storage facility came under renewed fire on Saturday as residents gathered to hear a terrorism risk expert talk about the tanks.
About 70 people attended the two-hour discussion sponsored by a coalition of homeowners groups, neighborhood council members and an organization that sponsors the website HazardsBeGone.com/.
The tanks storing propane and butane at 2110 N. Gaffey St. have come under increasing scrutiny by those who say the materials pose a danger to tens of thousands of residents for miles around.
From street demonstrations to community forums and videos showing the potential damage of a tank disaster, activists have pushed their cause to move the Rancho LPG facility, owned by Plains LPG, out of the area.
And though chances are rare that a terrorism strike or natural disaster such as an earthquake would release what could be a widespread, fiery vapor cloud over the community, the possibility alone should be enough to force the facility out, critics argue.
"Folks, accidents happen," said Los Angeles Unified school board member Richard Vladovic, one of several speakers at the meeting held at Taper Avenue Elementary School, which is within sight of the tanks. "You couldn't build that here today, but a little grandfather clause allows it to be here."
Addressing the chance of a disaster, terrorism risk expert Carl Southwell said, "It's something that's highly unlikely to occur, but it's something that's possible.
Los Angeles Councilman Joe Buscaino in a video released by his staff Friday addressing the topic - he was unable to attend the meeting due to a skate plaza groundbreaking at the same time - pledged to do everything he could to make sure the facility remained frequently inspected and compliant.
"I understand the frustration of those concerned about safety or that information doesn't get out there fast enough or that it's not easy to digest," he said. "I can also appreciate your wish to simply move these tanks. But we must remember that it's private property and not owned by the city or the Port of Los Angeles."
Rancho - established in 1976 by Petrolane and later operated by Amerigas - has a long-term lease on the privately owned land and has repeatedly been found in compliance with safety laws. Moving the facility would cost millions of dollars.
"There's no way to legally compel this facility to relocate without finding the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take," Buscaino said. "While I wish I could just pick them up and move them and turn all this land into open space or traditional office buildings, it's just not that simple."
The Los Angeles City Council requested a study on the issue several months ago and the chief legislative analyst's report, released Feb. 19, recommended implementing emergency exercises and better communication with the community when reporting on regular inspections.
Janet Gunter of San Pedro, a leading voice among the activists who have spearheaded the drive to move the tanks out, called the city report "pretty disappointing."
"It really in no way talks about risk management and the issue of insurance," she said.
Inspections primarily by the Los Angeles City Fire Department and city Building and Safety are conducted several times a year, including some surprise inspections. The plant has been found to be in compliance.
But critics say that won't matter if there's a breach in one of the tanks because of a natural or man-made disaster.
"It can't be made safe," said science teacher Connie Rutter.
Three councilmen from nearby Rancho Palos Verdes also came to the meeting, saying the tanks had become a concern in their city as well.
"As far as jurisdiction goes, Rancho Palos Verdes has very limited jurisdiction," Rancho Palos Verdes Councilman Jerry Duhovic said. The city attorney, he said, "is looking into what legal recourse there may be, what other avenues there are to pursue."
Fellow Councilman Jim Knight likened Rancho to a dangerous crosswalk that doesn't get a traffic signal until someone is killed.
And while the facility operates as what is known in planning as an existing nonconforming use, Knight said "safety trumps all of that."
"We may not have physical jurisdiction, but we have a moral and ethical jurisdiction to look out for our residents," said RPV Councilman Brian Campbell.
Speakers specifically called on the company to be more forthcoming about its insurance. A company representative did not attend the meeting and could not be reached for comment.
"Obviously if this were a planned facility today, it probably would be cut off at the knees in the planning process," Southwell said. "However, the facility has broken no laws ... everything they do is within the letter of the law. "But there's been a problem with the way these facilities are built and grandfathered in."
Southwell added that the planning process typically favors the property owners.
"It's a policy problem," he said. "When something is there legally and it's not friendly to the neighborhood, policy makers and elected officials don't know what to do. So typically they do nothing."
Critics charge that even in the 1970s, the plant was not put under the requirements it should have been at that time.
Buscaino, in his video, said that while the company, like someone's noisy neighbors, cannot be forced to move, the city can be sure that the facility is frequently inspected and that safety and security standards are strictly enforced.
"I live nearby and have many friends and family who live by these tanks," Buscaino said. "I will do everything in my power to make sure that all these tanks are safe and that those of us who live nearby will be safe. This is a difficult and complicated issue."