Hahn joins call on Newsom to consider practicality of closing Playa del Rey natural gas storage facility

By Gary Walker

Community activist group Protect Playa Now cites an unplanned natural gas release from Southern California Gas Co.’s Playa del Rey facility in Jan. 2013 as reason for shutting down the natural gas storage site

Local and state environmental watchdogs have used the aftermath of the Oct. 23, 2015 natural gas explosion at Aliso Canyon’s underground gas storage facility near Porter Ranch as a cautionary tale of what can happen at other gas storage facilities, including the 58-year-old Southern California Gas Co. Playa del Rey site.

Now, armed with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s support for closing down Aliso Canyon, advocates for decommissioning the Playa del Rey facility have been given renewed hope.

Tudor Popescu, a co-organizer for Protect Playa del Rey, a coalition of residents advocating for renewable energy policies and a closure of the Playa del Rey operation, lives two blocks away from the site.

Two years ago, Popescu said there was a frequent “rotten egg smell” in the air that he could trace to the underground storage location.

“Since then, I’ve spoken to neighbors on the bluffs too and they smell gas regularly,” he said. “I believe the time to close it is now.”

The county Board of Supervisors appear to think so as well. At their Jan. 10 meeting, board members sent a letter to Newsom asking him to fast track closing down Aliso Canyon and to consider the practicality of shuttering Playa del Rey’s underground storage facility.

“I fully support expediting the closure of Aliso Canyon,” said Fourth District Supervisor Janice Hahn. “However, in my district we also have the Playa Del Rey Natural Gas storage facility. The residents of Playa del Rey, Del Rey, Playa Vista, Marina Del Rey, Venice, and Westchester often complain about odors and bubbling water at the Ballona Wetlands.”

The feasibility study was part of an amendment by Hahn to a motion by Fifth District Supervisor Kathryn Barger to accelerate closing Aliso Canyon, which is located in Barger’s district.

“We’re thrilled by Supervisor Hahn’s action. I think it definitely puts the pressure on other lawmakers to step up and ask for this facility to be closed,” said Ethan Senser, an organizer with the environmental justice organization Food & Water Action, which has been working with Protect Playa Now.

In addition to citing the Aliso Canyon explosion — considered the largest single natural gas leak in U.S. history — Protect Playa Now often points to gas leaks at Playa del Rey, including an unplanned natural gas release on Jan. 6, 2013 that caused the facility to temporarily suspend operations and sent flames shooting into the sky, to help make their point.

SoCal Gas spokeswoman Christine Detz said the Playa del Rey location is a vital geographic source of energy that helps meet the needs of their customers.

“Local natural gas storage facilities, like Playa del Rey, are critical to the reliability of Southern California’s natural gas and electricity systems. The majority of homes in Southern California, about 90%, use natural gas for hot water and heating. Storing natural gas locally helps protect those homes and consumers from energy shortages and sudden spikes in the price of natural gas, providing customers with safe and reliable natural gas,” Detz
wrote in an email response to Hahn’s amendment.

Hahn, who represents Playa del Rey and nearby Marina del Rey, also opposes any increase to Playa del Rey’s gas storage capacity.

“In light of this news I want to make sure that the closure of Aliso doesn’t result in any proposals to increase storage capacity at Playa Del Rey. If anything, like many of the local residents I would also like to see this facility closed,” Hahn told the board.

Without a local storage facility, sufficient amounts of natural gas might not be available if demand goes up, said Westchester resident Cyndi Hench, a member of a Westchester/Playa del Rey community advisory committee on the facility’s operations. In addition, the gas company is also developing new technologies to convert the electricity created by solar power into hydrogen gas, Hench added.

“These are a couple of things that we are blessed to take for granted and would be negatively impacted by the closure of our local storage operations. The Playa del Rey facility is where it is because it is the right geology for gas storage. It seems that the majority of people do not know what the storage facility actually is and know nothing about its history,” said Hench, a former Neighborhood Council of Westchester/Playa president.

Lambert Doezema, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Loyola Marymount University in Westchester, said members of the scientific atmospheric community believe that any point source of methane emissions should be monitored constantly.

“From the perspective of climate change, I think the optimist would say if we close down [Playa del Rey] this would force us to accelerate the move toward renewable energy, but the more cautious person might say that while we need to move quickly we should also make sure that we maintain some of these fossil fuel sources as backup until we reach out goals,” Doezema said.

The California Public Utilities Commission is the state agency that would consider the decommissioning of an underground storage facility.

Newsom’s office did not respond at press time for request for comment on the Hahn amendment.