Neighbors for a Safe Environment (NASE) won a round April 18 in its ongoing battle with an oil company that wants to expand operations at a site in the Pico-Robertson area.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Yaffe announced that he would issue an order that will force the City of Los Angeles to revoke approval of the environmental impact report (EIR) that Breitburn Energy Company needs to proceed with the expansion.
"We need to have people understand that we are not powerless and [not] just a little group of people fighting a big oil company and losing," said NASE's Rae Drazin, who has worked to muster community support amid seeming apathy toward the cause. "We can do it, and that is something the community should know."
Joel Moskowitz, NASE's attorney, said the judge will issue his order after a 10-day period during which Breitburn can comment upon a draft submitted by NASE. If the judge signs the order, the city will be forced to revoke approval of the EIR, and Breitburn will have to cease construction on the site at the corner of Pico Boulevard and and Doheny Drive.
Breitburn public relations consultant Howard Sunkin of Cerrell Associates said the company is awaiting finalization of the order before it determines its course of action.
"Breitburn is looking at its options," he said. "This isn't a victory for NASE, it's a victory against the environment," he said, maintaining that the proposed improvements to the site would eliminate most of the toxins currently emitted.
Judge Yaffe found the EIR unsatisfactory in its analysis of noise issues, saying he was not convinced neighbors would not be disturbed by pipes clanging in the middle of the night from the proposed round-the-clock operation.
If Breitburn is asked to revise its EIR, the report will be subject to a new round of public hearings and will come before the City Council -- as it did last April, when the council voted to approve, under the recommendation of Councilmember Michael Feuer of the 5th District.
The last round of public hearings brought out hundreds of neighbors, both for and against the $6-million expansion of the pumping site, as well as modifications to the processing site across the street.
The project aims to increase output from 1,200 to 3,000 barrels of oil a day, pumped from the West Beverly Hills Oil Field, which supplies many of the drill sites in the area. The oil is transported to refineries via underground pipes; none is stored, shipped or processed above ground.
To achieve the increased output, a 129-foot, electrically powered derrick would replace a mobile diesel rig, called a "workover rig," that until now has performed regular maintenance on the site's 69 wells. Breitburn had planned to increase the current 10 days a month of workover operations to 24 hours a day, year-round, save all Jewish and legal holidays. The project would also raise the perimeter wall from 12 feet to 25 feet and enclose most of the operations in soundproof structures.
Breitburn says removing the mobile diesel rig will eliminate almost all the diesel emissions at the site, which accounted for most of the toxins emitted.
The initial approval from the city's Office of Zoning Administration laid out 78 conditions in areas such as noise, odor, air quality, worker decorum, landscaping, operations and monitoring.
But NASE sued the city and Breitburn, saying the EIR the city approved does not adequately measure the current output of emissions and therefore cannot reflect what the expanded operation would do to the environment. In addition, NASE questions the city's ability to adequately monitor the site.
The judge's finding -- based solely on noise -- was surprising to NASE members, they say, adding, however, that serving a setback to Breitburn and bringing the issue back to the public is what counts.
"We think there's a lot more than clanging pipes that is wrong with this project, but that's what we won on," Moskowitz said. "The way the law works, it doesn't matter how many grounds you win on, the city still has to revoke the permit that it issued."
He says NASE can ask the judge to force Breitburn to pay NASE's attorney fees, which would give the nonprofit organization funds to acquire experts for the next round.
NASE will again try to mobilize the public so that the councilmember's office will understand neighborhood concerns.
"Of course we would have liked to have forced Breitburn to make a more adequate analysis of the pollution issues, but that doesn't preclude us from forcing our representatives to look at pollution issues," Moskowitz said.
The impending election might also influence the case. Michael Feuer is up for city attorney, the governmental entity that was a co-respondent with Breitburn in the case NASE brought. Jack Weiss and Tom Hayden are in a run-off in the June election for Feuer's vacated seat for the 5th District.
NASE members say Hayden would probably be most effective in fending off what they see as the oil company's heavy influence over city politics.
But Breitburn says politics won't matter. "We have absolutely no concern about any political changes that may occur in the June election because we believe that the improvements to the site are so overwhelmingly in support of the environment that this project will proceed," Sunkin said.