Pictured:  Mike Johnson, Ventura City Councilmember (front) with city staff members Tim Fiske of Building Safety and Kaitlin Eyre of Code Enforcement at the Southern California Gas Company gas compressor site on N. Olive St. in Ventura, issuing a stop work order on April 14, 2021. Photo by Mike Johnson. 

by Kimberly Rivers
kimberly@vcreporter.com

Gaps between the jurisdictions of regulatory agencies are contributing to frustration and concern as Ventura Westside residents prepare to take to the streets over contamination cleanup and expansion plans at a natural gas compressor facility operated by Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) on West Olive Street. 

“There doesn’t seem to be any entity really looking at the situation,” said James Brehm, an artist who lives along Ventura Avenue not far from the compressor site. He’s part of the informal community group that has organically come together, calling itself the Westside Clean Air Coalition, to raise awareness about the issue. The coalition is made up of local residents and organizations. 

 “Nobody has the job of looking at this from the outside”

Brehm understands the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) has oversight of the contamination cleanup, and so far there is no indication it will revise the plan proposed by SoCalGas. Toxic substances remain in the soil from decades of industrial operations at the site and the plan, as is, only removes toxic soil from shallow depths, leaving deeper contaminates that have also been found in groundwater samples. 

He said he spoke to staff at the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District, who informed him that their limited purview is to permit the turbine engines for the compressors and related emissions. 

Several residents asked the Ventura City Council to discuss the cleanup and expansion plans as an agendized meeting. They spoke during public comment on April 12. Brehm is unsure what role the city could play, but he points out that the project is within city limits and that makes it a “concern” of the city’s. 

“Nobody has the job of looking at this from the outside, holistically, and saying whether it’s good or bad or safe or dangerous, and that is the issue,” said Brehm. 

Concerns raised by residents relate to management of the contaminated soil during cleanup in windy conditions, failure of the plan to address deeper contaminates that are affecting groundwater and the planned expansion of the site, which residents say seems to be slated for rubber-stamp approval. Concerned residents say the expansion should not take place due to climate change and environmental racism.

Liz Campos, chair of the Westside Community Council, points out that E.P Foster Elementary School and many homes are in what “the gas company callously refers to as an incineration zone, that will be worst hit in a fire or explosion at the site. Those words really torment me because when I was 17 [and read] the book Hiroshima, the U.S. thought the incineration zone would be about 300 yards. It ended up being about six miles. The idea of that, where people live, is frightening to me.” 

“But they don’t just want to clean up the toxic mess,” Campos continued. “They want to expand it. That is the most worrisome.” She points to information showing there are issues with the newer technology and practices at these types of facilities, saying that in the 1950s “there were fewer accidents, fewer problems, leakages and spills than there have been since about 1998 or 2000 . . . the newer technology at compressor stations somehow has had more accidents, and we are living in a time when we need to get away from fossil fuels.” 

The Westside Clean Air Coalition is planning a community gathering, walk and bike ride on Saturday, April 24 starting at 2 p.m. at Kellogg Park, at Kellogg and Ventura avenues. The group will walk from the park to the gas compressor site where community members will speak about the issues of the project. The event will wrap up back at the park. 

Community calls for “true public review”

At the April 12 Ventura City Council meeting, some residents called for the council to put the cleanup and expansion plans on the agenda at the next meeting and demanded the city “step in here. . . and call for a public hearing accessible to people who speak English and Spanish,” said Kari Aist, a resident of Midtown Ventura. She said the city should work to put a “break on any type of expansion . . . We have a climate disaster on our hands . . . it makes no sense to be expanding that operation.” 

Speaking during public comment, Campos cited “environmental racism”: The area of West Ventura is a recognized disadvantaged community, with 70% of residents identified as people of color, and it is rated as being one of the most polluted areas in the state. 

“It is clear the state is trying to rubber stamp this cleanup so they can expand the site. Look into this,” said Paul, who declined to provide his last name, addressing the city council on April 12. In addition he called for a  “true public review” of the “cleanup and proposed expansion.” 

On April 20, Heather Sumagaysay, Public Information Officer for the city confirmed the project will be on the agenda for the city council’s April 26 meeting. 

The DTSC is the agency responsible for giving the green light to the cleanup plan. Campos has asked the agency four times to hold a public hearing. Instead, the agency sent a response letter citing a lack of interest in the community as a reason that no meeting would be held. But Campos said that over 200 local residents participated in a recent meeting about the site held by the Westside Community Council. 

SoCalGas told the Ventura County Reporter on April 17 that it will hold a series of virtual community meetings to share updates on what it calls the “modernization project.” According to the company, the meetings will provide the public with an opportunity to ask questions. The meetings are set for April 28 ad 29 and May 4 and 5. Further details will be provided. 

Online Update: After press deadline SoCalGas confirmed the following details for the community meetings to be held online: 

Meetings conducted in English are scheduled for:

April 28 at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. 
May 5 at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. 

Meetings conducted in Spanish are scheduled for:

April 29, 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. 
May 4, 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. 

Those interested in attending are asked to RSVP to email: projectinfo@socalgas.com or call: 1-844-765-9385

Stop work order issued

A stop work order was issued last week at the gas compressor site by the city of Ventura when residents saw workers digging and moving soil. 

“Tim Fiske from Building Safety and Kaitlin Eyre from Code Enforcement are on site and issuing a Stop Work Order because there are no permits. Long trench, lots of piles of dirt,” stated Michael Johnson, Ventura City Councilmember, in an April 14 email. “The one gas company employee is blowing them off, saying they’ll try to get a phone number city officials can call, we’ve been waiting half an hour.”

SoCalGas clarified that the work being done at the site was related to installing a new sewer line for the temporary construction trailer and the work was halted while the company works with the city to determine if the trenching and temporary line require a permit. 

“I went over there to check it myself. There were a bunch of workers digging a trench. The wind was really blowing,” said Johnson. He said there was dust in the air and it was “blowing onto the fields at E.P. Foster” Elementary School. “The Boys and Girls Club were out there playing.” 

Johnson said he was “shouting” to the workers through the fencing. “They were clearly ignoring me.” He did eventually talk with the contractor, “then was pushed off to a SoCalGas employee,” but they couldn’t locate a supervisor, and the city staff were denied entry onto the site. Johnson said they waited over an hour to talk with a supervisor ,who never appeared. The workers would not give Johnson their names “and they wouldn’t say who their supervisors were.” 

In a statement responding to the Ventura County Reporter, Christine Detz, spokesperson for SoCalGas, said, “The work at the Ventura Compressor Station is part of an important infrastructure modernization project to maintain reliable and affordable energy,” and that “the work is being done in compliance with all local, state, and federal regulations.” 

Detz said the expansion project “also offers an opportunity to clean up some historical pollution in the soil underneath and surrounding two older buildings, and will further promote a safe and healthy work environment for our employees.”

Johnson said he understood that city staff were scheduled to meet with a SoCalGas representative on the afternoon of Friday, April 16. 

In an April 20 written response to the VCReporter, Sumagaysay clarified that the stop work order was issued because permits SoCal Gas had applied for had not yet been issued. “Workers began trenching for utilities that would lead to the temporary office building.  That work should not have started until permits were issued.  They stopped work, and secured the trench with fencing and covers,” stated Sumagaysay. She also clarified that the work that was being done is not in the soil remediation area, and that the soil was tested by VCAPCD and was found to have no contaminants. She confirmed city officials met with SoCalGas representatives on Friday, April 16 and reiterated the need for a bilingual community meeting.

Brehm said it’s clear the cleanup plan is only focused on cleaning up the soil so the expansion can occur safely for the construction workers. He said more transparency is needed and points to the failure of SoCalGas’s gas storage well at Aliso Canyon and the fact that in 2017 NASA research identified the gas compressor site as a major emitter of methane gas. SoCalGas claims it fixed the leak, but Brehm notes that it took NASA to detect the problem. “Their record is bad.”

For more information about the Westside Clean Air Coalition, visit www.westsidecleanair.org.

The final workplan approved by DTSC is online HERE.  www.vcreporter.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Ventura-RAW_Final-Draft-18Dec2020.pdf.