SoCal Gas Co. contemplates shrinking its Playa del Rey gas storage field to expand Ballona’s footprint

By Gary Walker

The Southern California Gas Co. is collaborating with state agencies on plans to close 18 of the 54 monitoring wells at its Playa del Rey natural gas storage facility, thereby expanding the footprint of the state’s Ballona Wetlands restoration effort.

“SoCal Gas is committed to environmental stewardship and supports the Ballona Wetlands restoration project. As a component of the project, we have proposed a plan to abandon or relocate our monitoring wells, in accordance with regulations established by the Division of Oil, Gas, & Geothermal Resources, and to relocate a transmission pipeline out of the wetland area,” SoCal Gas spokeswoman Fiorella Canedo wrote in an email to The Argonaut.

These 18 monitoring wells are “within or immediately adjacent to the restoration footprint” of the wetlands and their removal from service would not impact the storage field’s capacity, according to Canedo. How many acres would be impacted wasn’t immediately clear, however.

SoCal Gas is also proposing that a surface water channel could replace the existing natural gas transmission pipe inside the wetlands.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, the California Coastal Conservancy and local nonprofit The Bay Foundation are working to complete an environmental study that would trigger the start of the restoration process. Publication of the study has been delayed multiple times over the past five years, but state officials say they are on track to complete the document later this summer.

Richard Brody, who manages the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said his agency welcomes SoCal Gas’ assistance in the state’s quest to revive the approximately 600-acre wetlands.

“From a purely ecological standpoint, the state would support the abandonment and/or off-site relocation of the wells presently located within the ecological reserve. The Gas Co. has an easement and mineral rights within the reserve, but the state owns the property,” Brody said.

Canedo cautioned that abandonment and relocation of the monitoring wells is subject to securing funding for the work as well as consideration of operational priorities, but the idea has been in the works for a long time.

“We have recognized the benefits of removing our monitoring wells from the Ballona Wetlands for many years and began partnering with the state on this important project early on,” Canedo wrote. “SoCal Gas will continue to pursue these efforts and work closely with California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the state Coastal Conservancy, and The Bay Foundation to protect and preserve the Ballona Wetlands.”

David Kay, formerly executive director of the nonprofit Friends of Ballona Wetlands, said the presence of abandoned gas monitoring wells in the project site likely won’t encumber restoration work in that particular area.

“I suppose SoCal Gas could choose to relocate their monitoring wells that currently fall within the proposed restoration footprint, and then plug and abandon the existing wells during the wetlands construction,” said Kay, a senior environmental manager at Southern California Edison.

Kay, who lives in Playa Vista, has worked on wetlands restoration projects with infrastructure obstacles such as buried telecommunications lines, abandoned underground fuel tanks, old concrete airport foundations, and existing roads and bridges.

“Restoring wetlands around and above those structures does not make the construction more difficult; it only requires careful planning so one knows where the structures are in order to address them during construction,”
he said.

Canedo said work related to decommissioning Playa del Rey’s monitoring wells and natural gas transmission infrastructure will be performed by SoCal Gas after the work plan is approved by state officials and the Los Angeles City Fire Department.

A number of Playa del Rey residents and environmental groups have long been pushing for a decrease in operations or even a complete shutdown of the gas storage field, citing concerns about safety. They point to the massive gas leak at the Aliso Canyon facility in Porter Ranch as evidence of how dangerous a gas storage site close to a residential neighborhood can be.

Consumer rights advocacy group Food & Water Watch wants to see the facility shut down and rallied support among locals during a June 17 town hall meeting in Westchester.

Robert “Roy” van de Hoek, a biologist and co-director of the Playa del Rey-based Ballona Institute, joined Food & Water Watch at the meeting. He argues that gas wells are not compatible with an ecological reserve and don’t belong in such close proximity to Ballona.

“Ballona has been created as an ecological reserve, and it’s the state’s responsibility to make sure that [the wetlands is] operating soundly and not have any ecological impacts to its animal and insect species,” van de Hoek said.