The air around Santa Barbara is a little clearer thanks to a nearly complete three-year audit of Venoco’s aging oil facilities.

Santa Barbara County’s Energy Division and the Systems Safety and Reliability Review Commission have successfully conducted an audit of Venoco Energy Company’s Ellwood Onshore Facility, Ellwood Marine Terminal and Platform Holly. The audit began in 1999 in response to a large release of hydrogen sulfide gas in 1998. Venoco has already met 99 percent of the 1,000 requirements identified by the county and state land divisions. Venoco is scheduled to meet the remaining requirements by the end of 2002.

The results of audit have required Venoco to inspect and replace much of the piping, upgrade the fire suppression system, upgrade mechanical facilities on Platform Holly and have more comprehensive and correct staff training. Venoco is responsible for all upgrades and their costs.

3rd District Supervisor Gail Marshall put out a press release earlier this week saying she worked with the county’s energy division to ensure the audit was conducted quickly and efficiently.

“This comprehensive safety audit was ordered in direct response to the deadly hydrogen sulfide gas release that resulted in the shutdown of both Platform Holly and the onshore facility by the county and the State Lands Commission,” Marshall said in a press release on Tuesday. “Shutting Venoco down last year and performing these audits, along with the necessary follow-up actions, has significantly improved the safety of Venoco’s operations.”

Marshall’s staff assistant Mark Chaconas said annual safety audits are required as part of each facility’s Safety, Inspection, Maintenance and Quality Assurance Program. However, the hydrogen sulfide release of 1998 caused serious concern in both the county and state.

“With Venoco, they had this breakdown in the system which required us to look at the operations and systems,” Chaconas said. “We had to see what needed to be added to make the facility more modern.”

Production at Venoco’s facilities began in 1966. The hydrogen sulfide release of 1998 was largely caused by faults in the aging pipelines.

Michelle Pasini from the county’s energy division said the annual safety audits usually consist of 20 requirements, including facility operator training, the proper sealing and maintenance of all secondary containment areas and the proper storage and disposal of hazardous wastes. In April of 1999, Venoco received an abatement order to undergo the comprehensive 1,000-item audit. Venoco agreed in order to avoid being deemed a “public nuisance.”

According to the Status Report article issued by the SSRRC, the last item Venoco needs to complete before finishing the audit is an evaluation of the pressure relief system. The article also said, “All parties agree that the safety audit and follow-up action have significantly enhanced the safety of Venoco’s operations.”

Chaconas said the audit was necessarily rigorous.

“We really put them through the wringer because public safety was at risk,” Chaconas said. “Unfortunately we weren’t able to shut them down entirely.”

A representative from Venoco was not available for comment as of late Thursday evening.