Fuel to the Fire
By Elise Kaplan
Every day, fumes, traffic snarls and tanker trucks aggravate neighbors of the Smith's gas station on Constitution and Carlisle. And with a permit for the station to sell more fuel, the situation isn’t going to get any easier.
Smith's started construction of a gas station at the intersection across from the Carlisle grocery store in June 2010. The company received a permit from the city to dispense 3.3 million gallons of gasoline per year, according to Bill Westmoreland, deputy director of the Environmental Health Department. In October, the Air Quality Division slapped Smith's with a fine of $38,4000 for exceeding this limit by half a million gallons.
“We issued them a fine and a strong suggestion that they stop doing that, but that’s pretty much all we can do,” says Westmoreland. “At the same time, they applied for a permit for 4.5 million gallons a year on the basis that they were already doing so much business.” Smith’s also requested allowance for 350,000 gallons of diesel.
The company did not make an effort to reduce sales while awaiting approval of the permit, adds Westmoreland, an oversight that could result in another fine. Neighbors of the gas station argued that upping the allowance rewards Smith’s for sales that are already too high for a residential area. But on April 17, the station received the permit for the increase anyway.
As the owner of the medical center at Carrasco Plaza and the de-facto leader of the crusade, Andy Carrasco says the gas station may be selling at a much higher volume than pumping numbers suggest. Carrasco’s property abuts the gas station, and he's spent more than eight months recording traffic congestion. He says refueling trucks arrive at all hours. Based on observations of three to four trucks per day, Carrasco calculates the gas station could in fact be storing—and then selling—an estimated 6.4 million gallons a year. Requests for comment from the supplier, Western Refinery, were not returned.
However, Westmoreland says those calculations are not correct. “These trucks deliver all over town, and at some point, they come and deliver here. They may only have 1,000 gallons left in the truck,” he says. “We don’t know how much is being pumped in there, but we do know how much is being pumped out because the gauge really cannot be tampered with.”
The permitting process for dispensing gas only takes into account the emissions produced by the gas station and does not consider traffic or space issues, Westmoreland says. With the amount it’s allowed to pump, the Smith's station could produce 29.25 tons of volatile organic compounds over the course a year. That number is standard for gas stations and does not raise any concerns for his office, Westmoreland adds.
Traffic and Tankers
The neighbors have expressed fears that allowing an already high-volume gas station to increase its pumping will exacerbate existing traffic problems. Michael Geier, the Southeast area commander for APD, says his officers try to do as much as possible to enforce traffic rules. “We’ll write citations for cutting through property, but there’s not much room on that lot,” he says. “It was a neighborhood corner gas station at that location for 30 years, and now there’s a high-volume station.”
The delivery tankers compound traffic problems because there isn’t much space for maneuvering, and they often jut into the street, blocking visibility for bikes and cars. Carrasco and others say they worry the Western Refinery drivers are forced to get too close to homes when delivering and that there is little oversight by the station’s employees during the refueling process. “The problem is hazardous materials, and there are houses directly across the street,” he says. “The city is allowing them to come down the alleyway next to people’s homes because there is no other way to deliver fuel there.”
Westmoreland agrees that the trucks present a host of issues when making deliveries, including failing to block off the area surrounding the tanks. “If someone came through and hit one of these trucks you’d have a huge gas spill. It pumps out pretty quickly.”
In February 2011, a car backed into a Western Refinery truck while it was filling the tanks, causing slight damage to the truck, according to the police report.
Carrasco says he’s been trying to sell his property because he can’t rent out the offices in his plaza, but he hasn't been able to find a buyer. When Smith's offered to buy him out initially, he refused, he says, due to pre-existing leases with his tenants. Marsha Gilford, the vice president of public affairs for Smith's, says the company won’t purchase his property now that the gas station has already been built.
The city granted Smith's the initial permit for construction because it’s in a commercial zone fit for neighborhood businesses, such as gas stations. “Zoning code does not require that we take the size of the lot into consideration,” says Juanita Garcia, the acting code compliance official for Code Enforcement Division of the Planning Department. “All we’re looking for is whether or not it is zoned for that type of business. All that is stated in the zoning code is that [gas stations] are allowed, permissively.”
As a result of the concerns voiced by the neighbors over the last year, City Councilors Isaac Benton and Trudy Jones proposed an amendment to the zoning code. Andrew Webb, policy analyst for council staff, says the amendment would require an allotted area for cars waiting to refuel. If there were 10 spots to fill up at the station, there would have to be room for 20 vehicles. “This is designed to keep the traffic from backing up into the road, as I’m sure happens at that gas station,” he says. “It would, in fact, limit the number of pumps you could have on the site.”
The amendment would also require companies to erect trees or walls between the station and homes, and deliveries would have to be made away from where people drive on the lot. The vote on this amendment is slated for Monday, May 7, Webb says.
Neighbor Pat Toledo testified at a City Council meeting in mid-April. “The proper response from the city should not be to prevent this from ever happening again but to have kept it from ever happening at all.” He said the city should evaluate whether there is a need for more gas stations, period.
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