On October 23, 2015, the natural gas storage facility at the Aliso Canyon Oil Field reported a rupture that would become the largest methane leak in the history of the United States. The compromised well spewed for four months, releasing an unknown mix of chemicals that sickened residents and created massive displacement in the north San Fernando Valley neighborhoods of Porter Ranch and Granada Hills.
The effects of the leak at the SoCalGas complex are still being felt, yet specifics about the event are lacking. Why did the blowout happen? What toxins escaped? More than three years and a $119.5 million settlement later, residents continue to grapple with uncertainty as they attempt to learn both what the leak has done to their bodies and what the long-term prospects for the facility are. “We’re still getting poisoned,” says community member Helen Attai, “and our government is not doing anything to stop it.”
The methane leak alone would be bad enough. What makes the Aliso Canyon situation all the more traumatic for residents is that other chemicals were involved, and their exact composition remains unclear. The site is a repurposed oil production facility, and chemicals from prior uses have built up in ways that are not understood. The formula for SoCalGas’s natural gas is also proprietary, meaning the company is allowed to keep it secret for competitive reasons.
This has frustrated locals, including neighborhood council member Andrew Krowne. “How on earth could any agency or private physician know how to treat someone,” he says, “when no one knows what it is we were all exposed to?” Health studies led by Jeffrey Nordella—a physician who’s testing the affected population—have found high blood levels of benzene and other carcinogens. They have also found high levels of lithium and uranium.
The community says responses from a number of government agencies—including the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and an array of stakeholders such as the county Department of Public Health—are not meeting its expectations. “The only level of effort that would be appropriate for something of this magnitude would be every available resource and dollar, no red tape,” says Krowne. What they’ve seen? “Exactly the opposite.”
In the wake of the settlement, which mandates health studies and remediation as well as larger methane capture efforts, L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger and City Councilman Mitch Englander, who represent the area, said in a Los Angeles Daily News editorial, “the primary policy objective we wish to see realized—the permanent closure of Aliso Canyon—has yet to be done.” Barger’s position on closing the facility, however, seems to have changed. In an email, spokesperson Tony Bell said, “We need facts before making a judgment on a shutdown, including the results of the state mandated energy reliability study and the now-pending long-term health study.”
Among those affected by the leak, this ongoing lack of clarity from governmental agencies only seemed to compromise any semblance of trust in the institutions that should be helping them. That the county may now be administering the $25 million long-term health study—the centerpiece of the government settlement—also concerns them. “Time and time again throughout the blowout,” said Food and Water Watch organizer Alexandra Nagy, “[the government] has undermined public health and community trust.”
Amid the uncertainty, there is hope to be found among the residents. Neighbors who had never met one another have become close friends. Krowne has developed an app to track the ongoing health impact of the leak, and its use has spread to other communities affected by environmental disasters. SoCalGas, meanwhile, has focused on the engineering side of the crisis: Seeing as the initial leak went undetected, it has emphasized its ability to discover future issues at the facility. But questions remain. How can SoCalGas ensure that wells will be less likely to fail, and can early detection prevent disaster? The people of Porter Ranch and the surrounding area maintain hope that things will change.
Governor-elect Gavin Newsom and newly elected member of Congress Katie Hill (CA-25) have both pledged to help residents achieve their primary demand: shutting down the Aliso Canyon facility immediately.
The community health study led by Nordella should yield more clarity about the benzene exposure. With neighborhood input, the launch of a medical survey is an opportunity for regulatory bodies to rebuild trust with the people they serve.
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