Corporate negligence

Immense gas leak in California fuels toxic levels of public distrust

Residents experienced health problems for months before company finally shut down damaged well
Photo: Earthworks

Earlier this month, I boarded an Amtrak train in Los Angeles, on my way to Ventura, California. A few stops before my destination, I noticed a strange smell. By the time I got to my stop at Chatsworth station and the doors opened, the toxic fumes were so bad that I grabbed for a piece of clothing to cover my face. My upper lip felt numb and my nose was burning. I found it intolerable, but other passengers seemed not to notice. When I asked about it, someone told me about a gas leak that had been ongoing for months.

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My visit occurred during the final days of one of the worst natural gas leaks in U.S. history, caused by a damaged well at the largest underground natural gas storage facility in the western part of the country.

The Aliso Canyon storage facility, operated by the Southern California Gas Company (also known as SoCalGas), emitted 97,100 metric tonnes of methane during the months-long leak, according to a new study.

“Initial estimates show, as far as carbon footprint goes, it was emitting as much as 62 million cubic feet of the greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere each day, which is equal to the daily near-term climate damage caused by the emissions from over 7 million cars,” said the Environmental Defense Fund.

SoCalGas attempted multiple times to block the leak, but avoided shutting down the facility.

The experience has made me look with new eyes at natural gas storage and how this occurrence relates to major fracking expansion in Canada. In my home territories in northern B.C., several companies have plans to store gas on Tsimshian land for exports to Asia.

Toxic level of distrust

SoCalGas confirmed on Oct. 23 that a gas leak had been detected, after a massive number of complaints had been filed and the Environmental Defense Fund had raised the issue in media.

Initially, only a few hundred families were moved out of the area. The number of relocated families was up to 2,100 when SoCalGas was forced to enlarge the relocation program by the Los Angeles Superior Court, which rejected efforts by the company and its lawyers to scale back the evacuation effort. Eventually over 4,500 families in the Porter Ranch area applied to be relocated.

Mapping the gas leak
Quentin Rogers

Months after the leak began, on Jan. 6, 2016, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency.

“There have been a lot of problems, health problems.”

SoCalGas attempted multiple times to block the leak, but avoided shutting down the facility, which would limit access to its “product.” Only last week did it finally plug the leak with concrete, permanently closing the storage unit. On Feb. 18 the well was officially declared sealed.

But in the Porter Ranch community northwest of Los Angeles, where the storage facility is located, a toxic level of public distrust remains in the aftermath of the disaster.

A long leak

It’s not known for sure when the leak began, but local residents suspect it could have started earlier in 2015. Ricochet talked to two community members near the gas facility who said they noticed the smell before the fall.

Joy Baumann, a resident from Simi Valley who lives outside the evacuation perimeter directly west of the leak, said SoCalGas did a bad job of helping residents. “I just know myself they were not honest about when the leak started, and they did a shabby job trying to protect the people.”

Baumann said she asked her landlord to look into the smell last summer. “[In] June, July, I remember I started to have to call into work cause I would be so dizzy when I woke up, and I would have such a heavy gas smell, that I had the owner of the house go to the gas company and check if there was a leak and also check her gas bill ’cause the way it smelled, it was a very powerful leak.”

One family has launched a wrongful death lawsuit.

The smell and health impacts are caused by odorants added to the methane, which has no scent. As of December 2015, the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s complaint line had received over 1,500 complaints from people near and in the Porter Ranch community who claim to have experienced short-term health effects, including headaches, nausea, and nosebleeds. There are also reports of pets dying.

According to Baumann, her symptoms cleared up when she went to work outside the area affected by the leak. “I would instantly feel better, but when I would get home I would feel terrible, not well at all.”

Imelda Barrera, a nursing assistant who has lived in Porter Ranch for 16 years, told Ricochet she thinks the leak lasted “for more than a year, because we have been smelling gas for a long time.”

“There have been a lot of problems, health problems. A lot of vertigo, which I never had before.”

She also said she lost tenants at a boarding house she operates. “I have a renter, who has a little kid. His nose was bleeding. The doctor said it was because of the leak. So this affected me economically and physically.”

Corporate profits vs. people’s lives

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has said that symptoms “will generally go away” after the odor has dissipated, but this may be too late for some whose health has been compromised.

One family has launched a wrongful death lawsuit, alleging that the noxious gas worsened the condition of 79-year-old Zelda Rothman, who was already dealing with lung cancer. SoCalGas is also facing multiple criminal charges for not reporting the release of hazardous materials at end of October.

“Maybe it woke people to engage in a universal fight.”

Residents in and around the leak zone are pursuing class action lawsuits against SoCalGas because of health issues and loss of property value. A local retired field engineer believes she uncovered negligence on the part of the company, finding that a missing subsurface safety valve was removed in 1979 and never replaced.

The months-long leak affected the course of people’s lives. Barrera, who is 68, said she feared her retirement will be delayed. “I was thinking of selling the property and going and buying a small condominium … but because of this, the home value goes down. Nobody wants to buy.”

Baumann questioned the actions of SoCalGas and the consequences the company will face.

“If it was that easy to [stop the leak], why didn’t they do it in October? And if all you had to do was pour concrete, then why wouldn’t you do that for people’s lives? Something doesn’t feel right. How can you trust this place, living here, continuing to live in this place and what’s going to happen in the future?”

“I’m betting they are going to pay some fines but it will be minimal,” she said. “What did it cost other people and their lives?”

Increased public understanding of corporations’ lack of interest in people’s well-being might be the only good thing to come out of the disaster, according to Baumann.

“Maybe it woke people to engage in a universal fight for protection of our environment, children and species here. The big corporations are not doing this, nor do they intend to. They are fine with being sued for billions of dollars. I think if anything, the blessing is that it is going to wake people up.”

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