Two uncontrolled gas releases from the Venoco Ellwood Onshore Facility – one containing the hazardous gas hydrogen sulfide – have prompted concern from area residents and environmental groups about its safety and location.
The onshore facility, located approximately five miles north of the UCSB campus, prepares the petroleum collected at Platform Holly – the offshore oilrig located off Coal Oil Point – for transportation to the refinery.
On Dec. 21, the pressure relief valve on Tank 201 – which collects waste water and gases that have been separated from the petroleum – opened for approximately three and a half minutes and vented .31 lbs of hydrogen sulfide into the atmosphere. Venoco attributes the release to a failure in the vapor recovery system, which removes accumulated gases from Tank 201.
On Dec. 3, Tank 201 vented gas into the atmosphere for two and a half minutes during a maintenance procedure, but the emission contained no hydrogen sulfide.
Venoco Vice President Mike Edwards Venoco said that the releases were due to different procedures that affect the same the vapor recovery system, which removes accumulated pressure from Tank 201. Both procedures have been changed.
“They were different procedures that failed – one was an inspection and one was a calibration,” Edwards said. “They are not related procedures, but they do involve the same pressure release valve. There has been an addition to the degassing procedure to have the operators add a new safety check.”
Hydrogen sulfide is a pungent gas that is relatively safe at low concentrations. At high concentrations, far exceeding the December release, olfactory fatigue occurs – one can no longer smell the gas. Exposure to high concentration can cause dizziness, headaches, respiratory failure, coma or death.
On Jan. 11, the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District issued notices stating that the two releases violated a 1999 abatement order to reduce hazardous emissions. The APCD issued the order after a large hydrogen sulfide release forced the state to shut down the Venoco facility for a safety overhaul.
Terry Dressler, manager of the major source division of the APCD, said fines would be assessed through a mutual settlement process.
“This is the procedure by which we weigh the type and severity of the violation and we designate an approximate monetary fine. We assess whether action has been taken to remedy the problems and whether the releases have had any economic benefit. Then the initial request for a monetary fee is presented to the source and we begin the negotiation,” he said.
Stephen Velyvis, a lawyer for the Environmental Defense Center (EDC), said Venoco’s history of uncontrolled releases raises doubts about the safety and location of the Ellwood Onshore Facility.
“In 1999, there was a serious release that could be smelled all the way to [the] Mesa in Santa Barbara. The facility was so problematic that the state shut them down and made them do a major safety overhaul,” he said. “Despite that, there have just been two more releases. It just goes to show that the community should be very concerned with health and ecological impacts of the aging facility.”
The close proximity of the Elwood Onshore Facility to a densely populated area and its location on an area zoned for residential construction have led the EDC to question whether or not the facility should continue to operate at its current location.
“Because they are still having uncontrolled releases, people are concerned about why they are risking the health of the residents when they could move down the coast to a safer location,” Velyvis said.
Marc Chaconas, assistant to 3rd District Supervisor Gail Marshall, said the operations at the Venoco facility are a serious safety concern of the 3rd District.
“These accidents over the last month re-enforce that the facility is in the wrong place. These are serious safety problems that the community needs to deal with strongly,” he said.