Malibu News Flash: Malibu bares anger at LNG meeting

Catcalls, jeers and hisses greet Australian officials and ship captains who favor a proposal to anchor a liquefied natural gas ship off the shore of Malibu. CHP and Sheriff’s deputies are called to control the angry crowd.

By Hans Laetz / Special to The Malibu Times

More than 300 Malibu residents vented their anger Tuesday night at a hearing held at Malibu High School, loudly hissing and interrupting ship captains and Australian government officials who appeared in support for BHP Billiton’s proposed liquefied natural gas terminal 13.8 miles off the Malibu coast.

And once eight company supporters had their turn at the microphone, a parade of Malibu residents took turns lambasting the Australian company for deciding the city’s southwestern ocean horizon is the best place in California to anchor a ship with a set of three 14-story high round storage tanks that would regasify LNG imported from around the world. Some 48 people spoke against the Cabrillo Port project during the four-hour hearing, according to one count, with 17 favoring it. Officials at the State Lands Commission, which held the hearing, had played down the popularity contest aspect of the hearing, which was officially intended to take evidence of possible weaknesses in the project’s second environmental

impact report. If the State Lands Commission cannot get sufficient explanations from BHP Billiton, these objections may further delay or block Cabrillo Port, a

state official said. From fears of the LNG tanks exploding and sending a fireball more than 14 miles wide to transfer pipes leaking and possible danger to wildlife from the use of seawater to cool the ship’s generators were expressed at the

meeting. Tim Riley, an Oxnard attorney who has fought LNG terminals for three years, noted that “the techniques for transferring this cryogenically frozen LNG from one ship to another has never been demonstrated anywhere on earth, and we will be the guinea pigs for this grand experiment that they assume will work out of the box.”

Ship captains, who traveled to Malibu from as far as New Jersey and Alaska, attempted to assure people that the LNG industry’s 40-year record of engineering and operational safety should end any fears. “I support the Cabrillo Port project because LNG transportation has been proven to be safe,” said Doug VanLeuven, a member of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association.

Malibu resident Valerie Sklarevsky responded at the lectern: “We don’t want your poison here, and we don’t want you to make a lot of money here. If this thing explodes, do you think it will be people from Australia who come over here to clean it up?” Despite the meeting’s purpose to discuss the project’s EIR, the evening was largely spent with Malibu residents voicing their opposition to it. “I don’t want it. It will be visible from my house and I don’t want it,” insisted resident Tom Grubbs, to the cheers of most of the 300 people in the high school auditorium. Pointing at the maritime engineers, he lashed out at “those suits over

there, from all over the country, who flew in to Malibu to say they want it because they will get checks from it.” A similar viewpoint was voiced by every Malibu resident who spoke except one: Geoffrey Hunter, a retired Rocketdyne engineer who lives on Point Dume. “There are no computerized models, based on computer tests, that show any danger whatsoever to the mainland,” he said. “There is no danger, and I am in favor of it.”

Much more typical was the comment of retired journalist Sam Hall Kaplan, who lives in an ocean-view house: “My view will be ruined, and that’s maybe worth a million dollars,” he said. “Add up all the ocean views all over Malibu, and that’s a billion dollars worth of real estate loss. And just where does Billiton address that? The feisty tone of the evening may have been set by the first speech, from a visibly angry Malibu mayor Andy Stern, who noted that Billiton had spent millions of dollars lobbying state officials and wooing Ventura County business interests to support Cabrillo Port. “We don’t want your pizza, we don’t want your barbeque parties, and we sure as heck don’t want your LNG terminal in our city!” Stern shouted. “I have never before seen Malibu with such a feeling of unity on anything, and I assure you the citizens of Malibu will fight you tooth and nail every single step of the way,” Stern said. A pair of Australian government officials said that Australia was a reliable trading partner that would only export natural gas meeting the very highest environmental standards.

“We don’t care!” yelled one man in the audience, prompting applause and more admonitions.

Cameron Wellwood, a surfer wearing a T-shirt that said “Kill LNG” on one side and “Die LNG” on the other, said, “I don’t really care about bringing in natural gas just so the San Fernando Valley can use all your gas,” he said in a speech laced with surfer terms. Former City Council candidate Ed Gillespie criticized the new worst-case scenario study, which expanded the potential size of a fireball if an explosion from the LNG ship occurred, from the original 1.6 miles estimate to 14.4 miles across. “This is predicated on only 4.5 mile winds,” he said. “You put some real winds behind that and your explosion is going to end up in Malibu in a few minutes.” And a real estate agent, Natalie Soloway, expressed amazement that the Billiton proposal had brought Malibu into the position if campaigning alongside the California Coastal Protection Network, which had bitterly fought Malibu residents on coastal access issues in years past. “We’re even on the same side as (CCPN director) Susan Jordan, now, for crying out loud,” she said. The hearing grew so rowdy at one point that worried State Lands Commission officials prompted Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies to call in backup from the California Highway Patrol. At least eight deputies and CHP officers were sent to Malibu High School. One staffer worried aloud that “we’re losing control of the meeting.” Commission attorney Mark Meir asked the three Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies to step outside, where he told the deputies their plan to eject unruly attendees “would open us up to charges that we’re biased against the project.”

Deputies remained outside and radioed for backup, and several minutes later several CHP and sheriff’s cruisers arrived. By that time, Malibu residents had begun their statements opposing the BHP Billiton proposal, and the crowd had largely calmed. At the end of the night, even the ship captains seemed nonplussed by the catcalls, boos and rude behavior exhibited during the night. “Nah, we expected it, we’d be doing the same thing,” said one as he left with his group for dinner at a seaside restaurant, on a world-famous Malibu beach.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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