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Don’t Mess With These Women: How Moms Can Help Close Down Aliso Canyon

They didn’t intend to become environmental warriors. But sometimes events compel personal action.

Photo by Rick Canter

They didn’t intend to become environmental warriors. But sometimes events compel personal action, especially when living in a polluted area. That’s what happened to many living in the shadows of the SoCalGas storage facility in northern Los Angeles.

They didn’t intend to face TV cameras or call elected officials on a daily basis. Nor learn to write letters to the editors of newspapers, learn about how regulatory agencies work, or even to address the regulators in person.

But this group of women have done just that. Motivated to protect their children, homes, and health.

Here’s the background: in October 2015, a well at the Aliso Canyon gas storage site some thirty miles north of down town Los Angeles sprang a leak. This leak became a blowout and was responsible for the largest release of gas in US history.

Residents from the northern San Fernando Valley had to temporarily relocate in order to escape the massive amounts of methane, mercaptans, especially the numerous toxic chemicals, making many ill. Two schools located within a couple of miles from the facility were relocated onto two other school campuses, room by room, after the Los Angeles Unified School District finally acknowledge that too many children were getting ill during the school days.

Many others stayed behind in the communities of Porter Ranch, Granada Hills, Chatsworth, and Northridge, as sometimes other factors such as lack of sufficient hotel rooms and short term apartments as well as work conditions precluded moving.

In this article I chose to focus on the mothers who were some of the most active “Aliso Warriors” and how each one was changed by the largest release of gas in US history.

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Photo by Jon Teboe

Lori Aivazian, an 18-year resident of Porter Ranch, first learned about the blowout when she received a mailing from SoCalGas. She said that her family relocated from January to June 2016, even though her husband and daughter didn’t want to leave their home. She did get sick and needed to leave the area.

Lori says that she had never been involved in activism before. But because of the blowout, she started speaking up at Los Angeles City Council and the County Board of Supervisors meetings and at South Coast Air Quality Management District hearings. “I was showing up to meetings and didn’t know the others.” As far as what she has gained from her experiences, she learned “to use her voice to fight injustice sooner.”

How would Lori describe herself and the other women she has been working with: “determined warriors.”

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A 27-year resident of Granada Hills, Helen Attai found out about the blowout from watching the news. She and her husband ended up living in a hotel for five months.

Helen says, “I got involved because I was pissed and could not believe what was going on, and no one was helping us.” Activism was new to her, but she attended protests and even traveled to Sacramento to speak with state senators and politicians. “Speaking out at hearings, workshops and with media has been outside of my comfort zone,” she says.

What has she learned? “It has changed me in a way to not trust my government, government agencies, politicians, and learn that no one is coming to help us and we need to work tremendously hard to be heard in this county.”

“I am very proud of the men and women who I have met throughout this event and the friendships I have made. I always knew women are tougher and more resilient, maybe that comes with motherhood. I have tremendous respect for all mothers who are mama bears and are fighting to protect their families despite their busy lives and being sick and have health symptoms and issues themselves. I feel like I am stronger and have much better understanding of how our government works or NOT WORKS!”

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Deirdre Bolona, whose family moved to Porter Ranch in 1998 for the “mountain breezes and hiking trails,” felt there was something wrong a few weeks prior to the announced date of the blowout. “I was constantly in a lethargic state. I would come home from work every day and just lay in my bed.”

When the leak was finally announced, “I just shook my head, thinking those liars!” She and her husband relocated, but only for a little over a month before being told they were being required to return. She said that her father, who lived with them, refused to leave because he trusted that SoCalGas would follow the laws protecting people’s safety, and that LA County Health would help the community.

Prior to the Aliso disaster, her main involvement was being a Girl Scout leader and in the PTA. But in taking a stand against SoCalGas, “I learned I am stronger than I thought. I learned no matter how tired I get from witnessing the pure corruption in our agencies and entities wanting to turn my community into a sacrifice zone, so they can continue to earn exorbitant profits while causing illness and disease, I will continue the fight!”

She does admit that some of the actions she took needed to take her out of her comfort zone. “I feel most uncomfortable when I attend hearings to fight for our community and have to speak to committees, public officials including Senators in Sacramento, and the news media. Speaking in public about the atrocities we are forced to live with is emotionally exhausting and I usually lose my composure,” she says. She added, “I raised four children here in the San Fernando Valley and lost my father to kidney cancer, one of many the prevalent cancers in our area. I don’t know what the cumulative exposure to these toxicants that have been spewing into the air for all of our 18 years here and how it will affect the health of my kids in the future.”

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An 11-year resident of Granada Hills, Jane Fowler, heard about the blowout on the radio the day before Thanksgiving. She had been getting dizzy along with other symptoms so she realized how bad it was. She had guests coming to dinner, but moved out the next day, relocating for seven months to a small hotel room. Her daughters were planning to come home for the holidays, but didn’t because they couldn’t be at the house.

She says she got involved in the fight to shut down the facility because of feeling unable to take care of her family due to her exhaustion. She added, “I also got involved because I was very angry about what was going on. We were completely being victimized again by the Gas Company in the way they treated us during our relocation.” She was referring to the chaotic way the gas company handled their relocation. She was also upset at being told that there were no effects from the blowout. “The headaches, the sore throat, the nausea, aching muscles, aching bones and body, blurry vision, my hair falling out, becoming afraid to drive, becoming afraid to be alone, becoming afraid to be around people, anxiety, depression.”

She pointed out that before the blowout, she wasn’t an activist. She was involved in the usual volunteering at schools. But since she started getting sick, she was willing to get out of her comfort zone. She found sharing her story was the toughest. “Sharing how incredibly bad it got for me. And my family. I just speak about myself. So speaking is always uncomfortable and scary. I have never not been shaking with fear. Even to this day.” Now she’s learned about the corruption at the agencies that are there “to protect us — that was a rude awakening.” She mentioned the AQMD, DOGGR, and other agencies are complicit in the negligence.

She pointed out that she’s still learning. But still feels out of her element. But the biggest lesson is the need to switch to clean energy.

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Loraine Lundquist, who has lived in the area for nine years, learned from a friend at an environmental meeting that many were smelling gas in the Porter Ranch area and were unable to find out from SoCalGas what was going on.

As climate change is the topic she teaches about in her sustainability courses at Cal State Northridge, she realized that here was a case in her community where “the dangers of fossil fuels were acutely brought home in my own backyard. I saw this as an opportunity to help people in my community who were suffering, educate people about the hazards of our current energy system, and enable this disaster to serve as a catalyst to help transition our society into our clean energy future.”

She was not a first time activist in this field, but this was the closest case of dealing with the dangers of fossil fuels. And this was a first time to speak up at a rally.

Because of this disaster, “I learned the power of community and the camaraderie that brings people together in a disaster. I have met so many amazing people through this work, and watching the women of this movement come together to protect their neighbors and their children has taught me the incredible power of solidarity. I am a better person for knowing the women and men who have sacrificed so much to safeguard their neighborhood. “

At the protests to close down Aliso, she admits it was her first time using a megaphone to address the community as a leader and mobilizer. She remembers shoring up her courage to speak up.

When describing the women who have been active, including herself, she said she would say “fierce, inspiring, dedicated.”

This list of dedicated women are just some of those actively working to make the northern San Fernando Valley a safer and healthier place to live. And closing the Aliso Canyon gas storage site is a strong start to this goal.