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Oil firms ordered to clean up operations on Banning Ranch

This Aug. 18, 2016 photo shows what remains of an oil-extraction operation in Banning Ranch, on what is believed to be the biggest piece of privately-owned vacant land on Southern California's coast in Newport Beach. Developers want to build 895 homes and a 75-room resort hotel on the 401-acre swath of land in upscale Newport Beach. Proponents say they would rehabilitate and preserve much of the scenic site, but opponents say the land should be left as open space. Native American groups have also begun to look into whether the site might be sacred ground.
Nick Ut/AP
This Aug. 18, 2016 photo shows debris from an oil-extraction operation on Banning Ranch, a 401-acre swath of land in Newport Beach. In late February, California's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources issued citations including some 150 violations to two oil firms with leases on the land.

The California agency that oversees oil and gas operations has ordered two companies to clean up leaks and debris from their operations on Orange County’s Banning Ranch. 

Newport Beach-based Armstrong Petroleum and West Newport Oil were each issued dozens of citations resulting from recent inspections of their leases on the roughly 400-acre stretch of land, one of the largest remaining undeveloped parcels along the Southern California coast.  

Photos taken by inspectors show piles of old tires, rusty pipes and crumbled foundations. The companies were ordered to remedy the alleged violations by March 31 or else face potential fines and other enforcement actions. 

The firms can appeal the citations.  

Armstrong Petroleum and West Newport Oil both declined a request for comment.

Terry Welsh, president of the Banning Ranch Conservancy, which wants to see the land cleaned up and preserved as open space, said remedying the violations - especially removing old structures - will help restore habitat for species like the threatened California gnatcatcher. 

“In our opinion, that material should have been disposed of long ago,” he said.

But the citations do little to resolve bigger questions over the land’s future. 

Last fall, the California Coastal Commission voted down a plan to build nearly 900 homes and a resort on the property. The developer, Newport Banning Ranch, had also pledged to clean it up and leave a large portion as open space. 

Newport Banning Ranch sued the commission over the project denial in December. 

In a separate lawsuit, the California Supreme Court is scheduled to issue an opinion by early April on whether the City of Newport Beach violated its general plan and the California Environmental Quality Act in approving the Newport Banning Ranch project.