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Venoco attacked over plant gas leak


Venoco Inc. was accused Tuesday of "a big oversight" in failing to notify County Emergency Services of an "egregious incident," a potentially harmful hydrogen sulfide gas leak last summer at the Ellwood facility that could have endangered nearby residents.

The Santa Barbara company was attacked by county leaders, environmental officials and homeowners -- demanding everything from improving notification procedures to a plant shutdown -- during the two-hour meeting in Santa Maria.

"This aged facility should be closed down permanently," said Mike Glick, who lives less than a mile from the operation. "The plant has exceeded its designed life."

The Ellwood facility -- less than a mile from the Sandpiper Golf Course, Santa Barbara Shores neighborhood, the soon-to-be completed Santa Barbara Spa and Resort, and UCSB faculty housing -- had the potentially harmful gas leak on July 27. But the company did not notify county Emergency Services of what was likely a Level 3 leak, the most dangerous with the greatest health risk, said Dianne Meester, director of the county Energy Division.

After the leak, nearby residents complained about the foul odor and of feeling nauseous, causing an investigation by county officials. The potentially harmful leak last summer was the first of four during the past eight months, said Amy Sabbadini, a planner with the county Energy Division.

"This is a very problematic facility," said Marc Chytilo, chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara. "Venoco does not understand the gravity of the risks our community faces."

Venoco admits to the hydrogen sulfide leak, but claims it contacted the county of the incident. However, a Code 20 -- a common procedure for oil operators to report leaks and spills -- was never reported, according to county Emergency Services.

"To me, it's (not contacting Emergency Services) a big oversight," said Supervisor Gail Marshall during the meeting. "If we had used that system, there would have been more awareness. It's your obligation to let the public know."

But the company is changing its emergency and notification procedures, said Steve Greig, manager of health, environment and safety for Venoco.

"It's an obvious concern for us," said Greig, adding the company has invested more than $1 million in improving the plant. "We've made changes . . . and we're committed to making more."

Meester considered closing the Ellwood facility if it failed an impromptu inspection in January. But "they (company officials) didn't know we were going out there and fared very well, with no finding of imminent danger to the public," she said.

The company is also addressing its emergency operations, including an automated dialing system to phone nearby residents of a leak, said Bruce Carter with Emergency Services. A public address system or siren could notify beachgoers and others near the plant.

The company continues to cooperate with the county Air Pollution Control District, District Attorney's Office and the Energy Division. The APCD -- also criticized for issuing the report six months following the leak -- has issued 15 violations for the incident.

Meanwhile, the District Attorney's Office is considering a fine against Venoco, county leaders said.

The company and county will discuss improvements and procedures during an April 20 meeting.