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SoCalGas Storage Field Embroiled in Classic Suburban Development Debate

Opponents of a massive coastal development on a previously undeveloped part of seaside Los Angeles have reignited the long-standing debate about the safety and environmental suitability of a major new suburban development near a 60-year-old underground natural gas storage facility operated by Sempra Energy's Southern California Gas Co. utility subsidiary.

Allegations resurfaced late last month in a local television station's news report that the gas utility and the developers of the massive Playa Vista mixed-use commercial and residential development have minimized the safety hazards from seeping methane gas in the area. The critics allege the naturally seeping methane is made worse by migrating gas deposits from the Playa del Ray underground storage field. The facility is the utility's smallest, but nevertheless is still of strategic importance because of the area's burgeoning population over the 60 years it has operated.

Sempra's utility and the developer contend the storage field is not the cause of the methane seeps, which are being mitigated by various containment and monitoring measures instituted by the developer at the 1,000-acre site which includes 500 acres of preserved wetlands. While controversy began more than 20 years ago, developer, utility, and independent studies have found none of the pipeline quality storage gas mixing with the naturally occurring methane in the area, which like much of Southern California is a former oil/gas production field, according to SoCalGas.

However, a group called the Grassroots Coalition and an environmentalist allege that they have seen evidence of "bubbling" methane under some of the new developments in Playa Vista. They also say that the developer's building mitigation measures are failing and that the city, the developer and the utility are ignoring a report from the California Public Utilities Commission staff last fall that warns of potential safety problems at the development -- although it makes clear that the Sempra utility had not broken any laws or regulations in its storage field operations.

An NBC network affiliate KNBC-TV aired a nine-minute special report during the last week of May in which a consultant contended that Playa Vista is the "largest gas seeping site that has ever been located anywhere in the United States." It also aired comments from former CPUC President Loretta Lynch. Environmental opponents of the development contend that some of the development's soil is almost 100% saturated with gases.

The opponents continue to contend that gas from SoCalGas's storage facility is leaking deep underground into a river far below the surface of Playa Vista and then migrating upward to the surface. The city in approving the development a decade earlier recognized the presence of methane at the site, but declared it safe for development with certain mitigation measures, such as a "membrane" or "shield" in places to keep the gas from migrating to the surface. Some of those shields already have failed, according to the opponents.

They contend that early city engineering studies of the site designated it a "high-risk area," confirming the presence of hydrogen sulfide and various volatile gases with methane concentrations. Residents in the older, existing Westchester residential area on the coastal bluffs above Playa Vista have for years tried to link the utility underground storage facility, the Playa Vista site and various known cancer-causing chemicals, they claim are found in the area because of its former oil/gas field and aircraft manufacturing uses.

"The gas company has safely operated the Playa del Ray underground natural gas storage field for over 60 years with at least five state and local safety-oriented government agencies overseeing operation of our facility," the Sempra utility said in a prepared written statement. "Independent scientific research indicates that the storage field remains safe and secure."

Nevertheless, the opponents want more investigation of what the television news report called "Burning Questions."

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