Incompetent, Corrupt, or Impotent: How public agencies mishandled the Aliso Canyon disaster in the San Fernando Valley
Part one in an ongoing history of an unresolved crisis.
Over the years, public agencies have often failed to protect citizens from environmental harm. Sometimes it’s a matter of money. Sometimes it’s an uncaring bureaucracy that’s willing to sacrifice citizens, especially those in minority communities. Sometimes efforts are made to protect the guilty. Among those situations: the Washington DC water crisis in the early 21st century, the Flint Michigan water crisis that started in 2014, the coal ash spill in North Carolina in the same year, and the Santa Susana Field Laboratory contamination that occurred over several decades.
And then the Aliso Canyon blowout happened. Too often incomplete or simply wrong information by one agency was used by other agencies and by SoCalGas to endanger lives of residents living in the shadow of the one of the largest gas storage facilities in the U.S.
This is an account of the many missteps and failures by those in governmental agencies when it came to resolving a massive blowout in Los Angeles County. But first, let’s look at some earlier examples of incompetence, corruption, and even some impotence when it comes to protecting people from environmental harm.
THE WASHINGTON DC WATER CRISIS
In Washington DC, a switch was made from using chlorine to chloramine in treating the public water supply about eighteen years ago. An expert in plumbing corrosion discovered extremely high levels of lead. The resulting snowballing of effects uncovered a skewing of test results from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to a lack of transparency about the levels of toxicity in drinking water for years.
A water quality manager at the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) had told her superiors as well as the (the Environmental Protection Agency) EPA about lead levels and was fired. Another engineer was threatened with losing his access to data he required for his research and diverting his funding to other researchers unless he stopped working with homeowners. Then he lost his contract with the EPA.
In addition, the WASA didn’t notify customers about the lead until months later and even left out key information in required insets included in water bills.
A report by the CDC was published in 2004 which stated that the elevated water lead levels might have contributed to a small increase in blood-lead levels. But according to this report, the results were not to the levels of official concern and the levels were actually decreasing. Unfortunately, the methodology the CDC used proved that the agency wasn’t being truthful. On top of that, other cities, including New York City and Seattle, used the report as justification for not being more aggressive in keeping lead levels low.
THE FLINT WATER CRISIS
Similarities to DC can be found with the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. In 2015, the source for drinking water was changed and the use of chloramines in the water treatment allowed lead to leach from pipes into this water.
Unsafe elevated blood-lead levels were discovered in some 10,000 children, and the contaminated water may have caused an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that killed 12 people.
Due to manipulation of data and mishandling of the crisis, four government officials from the city of Flint, from the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and one from the Environmental Protection Agency were forced to resign and another MDEQ staff member was fired. Fifteen criminal cases have been filed against local and state officials in regards to the crisis.
THE NORTH CAROLINA COAL ASH CONTAMINATION OF WELL WATER
Another case of water contamination that was ignored by a state’s public health official happened in North Carolina. A coal-fired power plant operated by Duke Energy had spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into a river in Eden, North Carolina, in 2014, sparking an investigation that led to a guilty plea of criminal negligence.
At one point, letters had been sent to residents warning them about contamination of well water, but in March 2016, the director of public health Randall Williams and the Department of Environmental Quality Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder rescinded that notice. Williams claimed that the water quality satisfied federal drinking water regulations, when, in fact, there is no federal standard for one of the substances found in coal ash, hexavalent chromium. When he was deposed, Williams said he rescinded the warning notices because they were stirring up unwarranted fears.
During another deposition, a state toxicologist Ken Rudo testified that state health and environmental officials tried to “play down the risk” of coal ash contamination of drinking wells. The chief of staff to the governor accused Rudo of lying under oath. Rudo’s boss then resigned over what she felt was an unjust attack on her employee.
It did not escape notice that the governor Pat McCrory, who had appointed Williams, had worked for Duke Energy for 28 years.
An interesting side note is that Dr. Williams is currently embroiled in another controversy, as the director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, who is requiring women seeking abortions in the state to undergo an invasive vaginal probe that many gynecologists have called unnecessary.
THE SANTA SUSANA FIELD LABORATORY
The Santa Susana Field Laboratory in Ventura County, CA, was used between the years 1949 and 1998 for various purposes including developing and testing liquid propelled rocket engines, nuclear reactors and liquid metals research.
The first commercial nuclear power plant in the U.S. was built here, and at one point ten low-power nuclear reactors were operated at this site. At least four of these suffered “accidents.” Plus, at times, fires broke out in a “hot lab” that resulted in massive contamination. One worker mentioned in a 2006 interview in the Ventura County Star that 22 out of the 27 of his coworkers passed away from cancer.
After a Department of Energy investigation found widespread chemical and radioactive contamination on the property in 1989, local residents and elected officials became involved in getting nuclear activity shut down at the site. Despite the closure of the facility in 1998, clean up and decontamination of the radionuclides and the toxic chemicals posing a hazard, which is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) of the California Environmental Protection Agency, had still not been started more than twenty years later.
Much of the delay was due to disagreements regarding the level of decontamination cleaning that each entity (the Department of Energy, NASA, and Boeing) will be required to undertake, whether to “background levels” (to restore the land to the original state before they started operations there) or to a “residential” or a “recreational” standard.
The DTSC, in residents’ mind, seemed to want to allow Boeing to backtrack on a commitment that was sent to the community members about meeting the “residential” standard (“so it will be safe enough that someone could live there and be at the site every day if development was allowed” according to a 2016 letter).
All along, the DTSC had been ignoring its early commitment to fully cleaning up the contamination, per Dan Hirsch, a former director or the UC Santa Cruz’s Program of Environmental and Nuclear Policy.
When the 2018 Woolsey fire started on the SSFL deserted site, local residents were concerned about the toxic materials that remain in the soil. DTSC was quick to assert that there wasn’t any danger, but used rather non-assuring language including its staff members “do not believe the fire has caused any releases of hazardous materials that would pose a risk to people exposed to the smoke.” In its release, the DTSC also said, “Laboratory analyses require several days to complete. DTSC will provide the results of these analyses, and field measurements, as they become available.” “Several days,” but in the meantime, the agency told residents everything was copacetic.
At the request of LA County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, the LA County Department of Public Health performed an assessment of air samples at the SSFL site, and determined there was no discernible level of radiation in the tested area.
But while the DTSC and LA’s Department of Public Health told residents not to worry, the Physicians for Social Responsibility-LA, which had expressed the need for a higher level of decontamination, released its own statement about the toxic materials that upon burning will become airborne in smoke and ash, and pose the risk of heightened exposure for area residents. Perhaps a risk that wouldn’t exist if a full decontamination was completed years before.
ALISO — THE BACKGROUND
In 1972, the Pacific Lighting Corporation (eventually renamed Southern California Gas) purchased land from Getty Oil and converted the drained oil field, including wells constructed as far back as the 1930s, into a storage site for natural gas. The next year, gas began to be injected into the caverns.
Over the years, many residents noticed strong smells of mercaptans outside, and were often told by SoCalGas that the odor is from “venting from maintenance.”
THE BLOWOUT: HOW ONE WELL CAN CAUSE SO MUCH DAMAGE
That was the case in October 2015. Many residents felt the strong smell of mercaptans were too much, but were assured by customers representatives at the SoCalGas call center that everything was fine.
According to a page entitled “Background on Aliso Canyon and Actions to Date” on the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) website, “On October 23, 2015, at approximately 3:15 p.m. a Termo Company’s employee who was driving by the well reported the smell of gas around Standard Sesnon 25 (SS-25) well pad to the Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) that owns and operates the facility. Aliso Canyon Station Operations personnel. SoCalGas’s personnel responded and arrived at the well site immediately to investigate. According to the utility, its personnel performed a sweep of the SS-25 well pad using a handheld gas leak detection device, and it did not register any natural gas leak. However, further investigation revealed gas leaking from an unknown part of the well. The initial leak grew into to a larger leak and consequently transitioned into a full-fledged blow out in a matter of days.”
Per the now archived “Background and Resource Materials for the Media,” that was originally on the gas company’s site, “On October 23, SoCalGas crews discovered a leak at one of the natural gas storage wells at its Aliso Canyon storage field. In response, we activated the appropriate procedures to begin to address the leak.” The timeline included in this media kit stated that on October 23, “Immediate action by SoCal Gas to secure area and implement safety precautions. Officials alerted (LA City Fire, LA County Fire, Hazmat, LA County Dept. of Health, DOGGR, SC AQMD, CPUC, LA County Supervisors, LA City, local schools, Castlebay Lane Charter and Porter Ranch Community Schools).”
Apparently that statement was far from the truth, unless “immediate” meant a few days in SoCalGas jargon. Residents, including Matt Pakucko, the president of Save Porter Ranch (SPR), a community organization founded the year before, started making phone calls to 9–1–1, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), and Michael Antonovich, who was the area’s county supervisor at that time. When Pakucko contacted SoCalGas a few days later, he was told there wasn’t any problem. Word started getting around through social media, especially on Facebook, with residents now asking if others had smelled the strong odor.
The Department of Conservation received an incident report from SoCalGas on October 25 as noted on the CPUC website. Los Angeles County Fire chief Daryl Osby was notified on October 26. The Los Angeles County Dept. of Public Health said it was notified on October 28, per the “Background Information on the Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Leak” fact sheet issued by its Communications and Public Affairs department. Some members of the community said that they, not SoCalGas, were the ones who notified the local schools about the problem.
According to a SCPR article, the LA City councilman for the area, Mitchell Englander, learned about the leak from his Porter Ranch constituents about the gas leak. Mayor Eric Garcetti and county Supervisor Michael Antonovich separately criticized the company’s tardiness in reporting the leak to their offices. And yet, Gilliam Wright, SoCalGas vice president of customer service, said the “Notifications were done according to the required schedules and generally all notifications were done within two days of the discovery of the leak.” One has to wonder if SoCalGas decided to try to beat the odds and fix the leak as had been done on other occasions without notifying agencies until after the fact. And certainly keeping the residents in the dark was part of some unofficial “none the wiser” secretive campaign.
Definitely the sequence of events and dates differed between the utility’s account and everyone else’s.
Just a few months later on February 2, 2016, LA County filed criminal charges against SoCalGas for the delaying notification to the California Office of Emergency Services for three days, as well as releasing air contaminants. The state joined the suit. Added was the failure to notify the Certified Unified Program Agency for LA County (the LA County Fire Department).
Within hours of the initial event, the AQMD started receiving more than 2,300 air quality complaints, leading the agency to begin air sampling. On November 5th, it issued SoCalGas a “Notice to Comply” to abate the release of mercaptans. Just five days later, the AQMD released information that stated the benzene levels at one housing community, the Porter Ranch Estates” was at 3.7 ppb, which was seven times higher than the range considered normal for the Los Angeles area (0.1 to 0.5 ppb). SoCalGas received a Notice of Violation for creating a public nuisance, which will not be first one the gas company would receive for the Aliso facility.
NOT JUST THE METHANE, NOT JUST THE MERCAPTANS
Public Health issued an “Aliso Canyon Gas Leak Health Fact Sheet” on November 13th, which claimed that the residents’ health complaints were due to the odorants, will not cause long term health problems, and that symptoms will generally go away once the odor exposure has stopped.
On November 19th, Public Health sent a preliminary environmental health assessment to the gas company stating that the only source of exposure was from the mercaptan odor. This message was echoed in the Public Health directive released from the department’s Bureau of Health Protection in which the gas company was ordered to pay for relocation. But when residents called the gas company asking to start the relocation process, the customer service representatives didn’t seem to know anything about it.
Two days later, Public Health issued a revised fact sheet. But the only difference between this one and the one dated on November 13th was a different phone number to call for relocation assistance.
At the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council (PRNC) November 2015 meeting, Save Porter Ranch members asked SoCalGas and LA County Health officials about the health effects of the mercaptan odorants and challenged the statement that there weren’t any long term health effects as there hadn’t been any studies conducted.
A community forum held on November 14th concerned a health survey, air quality monitoring and the effects of neighborhood drilling on health. Attendees were advised to keep calling the AQMD 1–800-Cut-Smog number whenever they smelled an odor.
Save Porter Ranch’s December meeting featured lawyers who answered residents’ questions, as well as show the FLIR video, explained how the group will be organizing actions, and discuss a letter to be sent to DOGGR.
All along, residents worried about what they were not being told. Skepticism about whether other chemicals were causing their symptoms. Some expressed concern about fires as in the past major fires have burned in the area, including one in 1974 that burned for several days and one in 2008, which was caused by a downed power line, and destroyed 15 homes and caused one death as a result of a freeway crash due to poor visibility.
Interim Director of Public Health Cynthia Harding, in a report to the Board of Supervisors, continued the message that it was the mercaptans causing residents’ symptoms. The other chemical of concern was methane, but the department announced there wasn’t a significant risk due to flammability. The agency based its statement that there was no long term health effects of the odorants on data from occupational and industrial settings, and the one study she cited was a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2012 from a six-month gas leak. Any other chemicals that may be found in natural gas would be “trace” amounts of hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes, per this report. Because “this incident” was now to be considered a long-term event, “supplemental monitoring of potentially harmful trace chemicals is warranted.” This letter was sent some six weeks after the blowout was reported.
Ten days later, Dr. Cyrus Rangan, a toxicologist with Public Health, was interviewed in the CBS2 news studio. He said that at the beginning of the disaster, “We had assurance that people would not incur any long-term health risks from this. But as the situation has evolved, we’re in our seventh week now, it gave us pause to say, now we really need to look at all the chemicals of concern that may cause long-term health risks. Fortunately, all the readings that we have so far, indicate that we are still not at the risk of long-term health effects or permanent health problems from this exposure. But we need to monitor this stuff every day because it is an ever-evolving situation.” The anchors didn’t quiz him on from whom did Public Health get assurance about the lack of concern about long-term health concerns.
As with Harding, Rangan attributed the cause of residents’ symptoms to the mercaptans.
THE SOCALGAS DISINFORMATION CAMPAIGN BEGINS IN EARNEST
From the beginning of the blowout, the gas company attempted to discount the immensity of the disaster. From letters sent to “dear neighbor” to those living in the 91326 zip code to the “updates” on its website, there was the assurance that there was no danger to the public, backed up by links to the latest Public Health fact sheet. Any symptoms that residents were experiencing were attributed to a reaction to the mercaptan odors.
In the Public Health’s communiques, other chemicals of “concern” were discounted as being at too low a level to be harmful.
One of the steps SoCalGas took in late 2015, was to set up a community resource center in the Porter Ranch Town Center. According to its December 16th release, this center was to “offer guidance on securing temporary accommodations, how to file a claim, and how to get free home air filtration and weather stripping to reduce odor.”
Additionally, SoCalGas hired a physician, Mary McDaniel, to convince residents that their families’ health wasn’t at risk due to the blowout. To this end, she wrote a Q&A for SoCalGas just weeks after the disaster’s onset that claimed there was no risk to residents, including pregnant women and children. So while parents were wondering if they should try to leave the area, they were being “assured” by Public Health and this mouthpiece for SoCalGas not to worry.
Among Dr. McDaniel’s statements was this one: “these compounds are harmless, although at very high levels they can be fatal”. More: “The concentration of odorant in the air around the facility and in the community is too low to cause symptoms, whether the exposure is intermittent or continuous.” Not to mention this comment: “Trace levels of benzene (below .1%) may be present in natural gas. When present, it will dissipate rapidly in outdoor air. Monitoring for benzene has been conducted around the facility itself and at several schools and other locations in the community and no levels above normal background levels for the Los Angeles area have been detected.” Regarding pregnant women or children, “the concentrations of odorants are too low to affect even pregnant women or children.” She also pointed out that “dogs, cats, and other pets have no special sensitivity to methane.” Yet, many neighborhood pets, who had been healthy before October 2015, passed away with a few months of the blowout.
Here was a physician being touted by SoCalGas because she was knowledgeable about environmental medicine, and yet she failed to properly inform residents that the chemicals they were being exposed to could possibly be poisoning them. What wasn’t revealed in any communiques was that McDaniel had a connection to a key player in the Public Health Department. More on that link later.
AND WHAT ABOUT THE LOCAL STUDENTS?
Within a week of the commencement of methane leaking, a noticeable number of children at Castlebay Elementary and the Porter Ranch Community School, both less than two miles from SS-25 as the crow flies, had been reporting headaches, nausea, and nosebleeds while in their classrooms.
The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) linked to the November 13th Public Health fact sheet on its website as a way to placate worried parents whose children were getting sick in class. Headache? Nosebleed? Nothing serious according to Public Health, so LAUSD superintendent of schools Ramon Cortines wasn’t worried.
On November 23rd, Cortines issued a statement that referred to Public Health’s insistence that the methane posed “little direct health risk,” and that the chief concern was from the odorants that were causing reaction because of its “stench.”
In a December 4th interoffice memo obtained by resident and then LAUSD parent Nancy Hernandez, a “student medical, nursing, and employee health team” had sent a letter to Cortines that summarized Harding’s December 1st letter and the Preliminary Environmental Health Assessment dated November 11th. The team’s conclusion was to follow the Public Health stance that there weren’t any long-term health consequences from what was being emitted from SS-25.
But three days later, the team sent another inter-office memo stating that at the two schools in Porter Ranch there was an elevation in visits to the health and main offices during the first week of December, with the most common symptoms being stomach aches, nausea, and headache. The team would continue to monitor the health concerns at the two schools.
In the meantime, many parents voiced their concern that their children were becoming ill while sitting in their classrooms, and were requesting that the students be assigned to another location, at a safer distance. At the same time, a smaller group of parents distributed a petition asking that the schools stay put at their current location.
After much outcry from the community over classroom health issues, the LAUSD board of education voted to relocate Castlebay and the Porter Ranch Community School onto other school campuses over the winter break.
PUBLIC HEALTH’S CONTROVERSIAL DIRECTIVES TO DOCTORS
Dr. Jeffrey Gunzenhauser, Interim Health Officer for the Public Health Department, sent a “Medical Provider Fact Sheet Aliso Canyon Gas Leak” to local physicians on January 22, 2016. As with the other fact sheets being circulated by Public Health and the AQMD, there was an emphasis on the idea that there was no long term or permanent health effects from these exposures. It even informed the medical providers receiving it that there weren’t any recommended toxicology tests and that any treatments should be symptom-directed.
“The Fact Sheet: Aliso Canyon Gas Leak Health Impacts” that AQMD issued on January 29th, revised the previous fact sheet to include benzene, but stated that health risks from the known carcinogen were “relatively small.”
At the PRNC meeting on February 10th, when Rangan and other Public Health officials, along with representatives from the AQMD, gave presentations, some residents challenged the claim that it was the odorant that was causing many residents’ symptoms.
One of the most controversial actions on the part of Public Health occurred on March 8th, when a “LAC DPH Health Update: Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Leak Resolution and Follow-up” was sent to health providers in the area, building upon the previous letter. Referring to the recent sealing of the damaged well, the directive said that monitoring indicated “that levels of air contaminants have returned to normal. When evaluating patients presenting with mild headaches, gastrointestinal or respiratory symptoms, or those with other non-specific complaints: Look for alternate etiologies other than air contamination. Avoid performing any toxicological tests; these are not recommended and are unlikely to provide useful data for clinical evaluation of patients.”
What isn’t widely known was that a registered nurse from Public Health followed up this letter by showing up at doctors’ offices to push them into following this communication.
The concern residents had with the directives sent to the health providers was that doctors were seeming to shy away from referring to the gas disaster whenever patients asked if their symptoms could be caused or related to the methane and possibly other unknown chemicals. Another problem was that doctors were openly discouraged from ordering toxicology tests. The end result was not just that the lack of testing led to potentially lost data, but ignoring chemical exposure could have further endangered lives.
Just days before this letter was sent, one resident had talked to Dr. Rangan about a “red zone” result on a benzene test her physician gave her. She said he clearly was not pleased about the toxicology tests she was given. The same resident brought up her concern in a phone call to the SoCalGas paid medical “expert, Dr. Mary McDaniel, who told the resident not to be concerned.
On March 9, SoCalGas had to clean up oily residues at the parks located in Porter Ranch when city officials found the spots, after SoCalGas and county health inspectors claimed there were none. Public Health said the oily spots “generally” won’t pose a health hazard, but recommended residents don’t try to clean the play equipment themselves. In a television interview, SoCalGas spokesman Mike Mizrahi said, “It’s actually many, many, many, many times less harmful than touching gasoline”.
ELECTED OFFICIALS TAKE AN INTEREST
At the Los Angeles City Council meeting held on December 1st, 2015, the CEO of the gas company (at that time) Dennis Arrioli apologized for the “discomfort, the inconvenience, the frustration, the confusion, and the bad smell.” But to CBS News a month later, Arrioli complained that “the danger has been overblown.” Mizrahi also added insult to injury by labeling the disaster “a nuisance.”
A short time after the city council meeting, a Porter Ranch Community Advisory Committee (PRCAC) was formed, with help from Councilman Mitchell Englander, to serve as a conduit of information among the community members, SoCalGas and various regulatory agencies. At first, the meetings were held on a weekly basis, and then were held approximately every other week, from December 2015 to June 2016, at which time it was announced by the executive director that the committee was being dissolved. Of the members in attendance, Issam Najm, who was representing his HOA, disagreed with the decision, saying that there were still many unresolved issues.
One noticeable lack of early response to the disaster was from Governor Jerry Brown. The Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES) issued a FAQ that was undated, but apparently written in late December 2015 or early January 2016, that basically parroted much of the information given out by the other agencies as to health risks. It claimed the leak wasn’t a blowout as “the top of the leaking well has been secured.” It also mentioned that in early December, the AQMD found 15 minor methane leaks in the other wells. According to this info, there’s seven state agencies were working with CalOES to oversee the operations to stop the leak, protect public health and safety, ensure accountability, and strengthen long-term oversight.
On January 4th, more than ten weeks after the beginning of the blowout, Governor Jerry Brown finally visited the Aliso site. He then met in secret with a few members of the PRNC, but not with the community as a whole. Some residents felt that this secretive meeting was questionable, and possibly a violation of the California Brown Act. Two days later, the Governor issued a proclamation stating a state of emergency. Word quickly was spread that Brown’s sister Kathleen sat on the Sempra Board of Directors, leading to charges of conflict of interest and a lack of confidence in the governor’s ability to be unbiased when it came to Aliso.
While residents weren’t too hopeful about Brown’s implied conflict of interest, there was another politician, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, who asked for an independent agency to investigate what happened at the facility.
At the January 14th PRCAC meeting, Rangan and Katie Butler, a LA County Public Health epidemiologist, reported that the health issue was more complex than originally thought. The Public Health representatives said their biggest concern from methane would be flammability, but insisted the levels were below that danger level. When asked about studies that prove that there’s no consequence from of breathing methane, Butler suggested the toxnet website.
According to that site, the danger of breathing methane was due to displacement of oxygen. But it also mentioned there was “a paucity of information about acute pulmonary toxicity from methane gas inhalation.” That same site, listed the symptoms of exposure to isopropyl mercaptan, but mentioned that any known studies were conducted on rats. For both chemicals, high levels were usually considered for workers in related industries.
When asked regarding studies into the long term effects of breathing mercaptans, Butler referred to a door-to-door health assessment conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) into possible health effects after a mercaptan spill that happened in 2008 in Eight Mile, Alabama. The leak of tert-butyl mercaptan in that disaster included hydrogen sulfide and oxides of sulfur and carbon.
Tert butyl mercaptan (TBM) is not considered a carcinogen. There isn’t available information on adverse health effects associated with long term TBM exposure. But short term exposure may cause dermal and respiratory irritation, lack of sense of smell, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, headache, drunk-like symptoms, cyanosis, lung congestion, kidney damage, convulsions, and even coma. Regarding ethyl methyl sulfide (EMS), it can be considered, based on single exposure animal tests, to be practically non-toxic to slightly toxic if swallowed, practically nontoxic if inhaled, and no more than slightly toxic if absorbed through skin and moderately irritating to eyes and skin. Diethyl sulfide (DES) has a pungent garlic-like odor. Inhalation may cause headache, nausea, dizziness, drowsiness, and loss of consciousness. Prolonged or repeated exposure can cause allergic skin reactions.
Note that this was a “health assessment,” based on CDC staff with clipboards talking to some 204 residents, who were asked about their families symptoms and trips to doctors four years after the spill, and not a health study In which toxicological or other health tests were conducted on residents.
When Rangan discussed benzene, he admitted that it absolutely does cause cancer. But added that usually a high level of benzene doesn’t come from gas operations, because there is extensive monitoring to ensure the emissions keep to low levels. (But then, did Public Health know about the high levels of benzene found at this site some years ago? More on this later.) At this same meeting, it was mentioned that it was SoCalGas itself which was supposedly monitoring chemicals at the site. It was also mentioned that the oily spots found in December were apparently crude oil, but both SoCalGas and the AQMD were claiming they didn’t find any in January. It was suggested that residents avoid eating any home grown vegetables until testing is completed. Even then, Rangan said that there’s not a problem with toxic build up.
After hearing testimony from many elected officials and residents over the course of several hearings in January 2016, the AQMD included a call for SoCalGas to develop a health study as part of its abatement order issued on January 23rd.
State officials at the February 5th meeting of the PRCAC, said that the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) will oversee the health study that was being ordered by the AQMD. Two weeks later at the next meeting, a representative of the OEHHA stated that the agency felt the adverse effects were due to the odorants and they didn’t expect to see cancer or toxicity. A step forward, two steps back.
Butler and Carrie Tayour of Public Health, as well as Carlos Torres, Deputy Director, Office of Environmental Health and Safety, gave an update on the pending health study as well as air monitoring at the March 3rd PRCAC meeting. It was mentioned that there would be a “Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response” (known as CASPER) study by going door to door. One of the committee members did remind the health officials that many of those sicken the most in the area were still temporarily relocated and wouldn’t be included from the survey.
On March 31, guest speakers Butler and Angelo Bellomo of Public Health, John Budroe of the OEHHA, Jorn Herner of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), and Steven Leonido-John of the US Environmental Protection Agency were present at the PRCAC meeting to discuss the CASPER study, explain why Public Health is against toxicology testing, and mention the possible other chemicals that may be present in the environment near Aliso. The Public Health representatives said they can use the “legal route” to get the list of chemicals from SoCalGas that were used at its site. But whether the department actually pursued this route never became known.
THE CASPER AND LEIGHTON REPORTS
At the May 12th PRCAC meeting, several guest speakers from Public Health, including Gunzenhauser, Rangan, Bellomo, Scot Cuno, and Butler discussed the findings of the CASPER and indoor environmental studies. Health symptoms hadn’t diminished since the sealing of SS-25 in February. It was reported in the Leighton Report that was about to be released, that barium was found in 23% of the Porter Ranch homes that were checked, and metals found in dust samples. That night, those from Public Health said that SoCalGas was asked for the list of materials from the well, but the utility refused, claiming the information was “proprietary.”
The CASPER study took place on March 10 through 12, 2016. Workers from Public Health went door to door of homes which had reported complaints during the blowout, a total of 210 households within three miles of the damaged well. According to this survey, 81.3% of the households had at least one member reporting eye, nose or throat irritation, 73.9% reported headaches or migraines, 67.8% reported respiratory problems, 60% stress, 59.9% dizziness or lightheadedness, 54.7% nausea or vomiting, 27.0% diarrhea, and 11% fever. Forty per cent reported noticing an oily residue on their belongings.
One thing to note was that many of those conducting the surveys reported symptoms, including throat irritation and exacerbation of asthma, while in the area, and felt better after they left.
The following day, Public Health released an assessment: “Environmental Conditions and Health Concerns in Proximity to Aliso Canyon Following Permanent Closure of Well SS‐25.” It stated that many residents still reported symptoms after returning home from being relocated. This assessment referred to the findings in the Leighton Report conducted by UCLA and UC Berkeley of dust samples for volatile organic compounds. Once again, the conclusion made by health officials was that these chemicals were not expected to pose a long‐term health risk, even though the department would use the results to recommend deep cleaning of these homes. It was noted that the majority of households in the communities near the Aliso Canyon Storage Facility experienced health symptoms in the month after the well was sealed.
The Leighton report involved taking samples from indoor surfaces of homes in the Porter Ranch area to determine potential contaminants that may have been deposited as a result of the emissions from well SS-25, as well as whether these pose a health risk.
A number of homes did show an elevated level of some of some of these chemicals, including aluminum, barium, bis(2‐ethylhexyl) phthalate, iron, manganese, nickel, and vanadium, compared to a control group of homes.
Among the ways that these metals can affect the human body are:
1. Aluminum: Can produce inhalation problems, such as coughing, in those who breathe large amounts of aluminum dust. Some workers who breathe aluminum-containing dusts or aluminum fumes have decreased performance in some tests that measure functions of the nervous system. The use of breathing masks and controls on the levels of dust in factories have largely eliminated this problem. Note that residents near Aliso were never advised to wear any kind of masks.
2. Barium: Can cause gastrointestinal disturbances and muscular weakness.
3. Bis(2‐ethylhexyl) phthalate: May possibly be a carcinogen based on studies on exposure in animals. It is believed to cause endocrine disruption in males.
4. Iron: Can cause problems when there’s an extremely high level entering the body and are not properly absorbed. Free irons can penetrate into cells of the heart, liver and brain.
5. Manganese: Can affect the nervous system at high levels.
6. Nickel: Can cause contact dermatitis.
7. Vanadium: Can cause nausea, mild diarrhea, and stomach.
Unfortunately, the researchers who designed the Leighton study decided to use for its comparison group homes that were approximately 6 miles south east of the well SS-25. Given that in about nine months’ time, the Public Health department would admit in a memo that it had received health complaints from an area encompassing a 12-mile radius from the damaged well, it would had made more sense to use a control group a farther distance away.
When Public Health officials Gunzenhauser, Rangan, Bellomo, and Butler, met with the community on May 19th at a town hall meeting, among the questions asked of them concerned the chemicals found in homes, including why can’t Public Health get a list of chemicals SoCalGas has used? Residents also spoke up about the March 8th letter sent to health providers, advising doctors not to conduct toxicology tests on patients as “these are not recommended.” The response given regarding the letter was the admittance “we could have written that much better.” The officials claimed the letter was giving advice and not a directive. Gunzenhauser said, “We are going to put out more guidance,” including more than just letters. But residents have not been given any proof that any such action was taken.
As for the exposure to metals found in homes, the officials said that SoCalGas will be directed to provide a comprehensive cleaning to all homes within the PRNC boundaries, to those residents who had relocated during the blowout, and to those living within a five mile radius of SS-25 who have reported serious symptoms.
At the conclusion of the town hall, parent Nancy Hernandez approached Dr. Rangan to discuss the toxicology lab results for her son. She asked him what would cause a 10-year-old to have high levels of benzene, toluene, and styrene. His response was that the numbers were meaningless and not an indication of any abnormality or long-term effects. He compared the test to using a height chart and the ranges in the toxicology report were created years ago. “It’s a waste of time to do these tests and that is why I discourage it,” he told the mother, adding that the test could have been affected by other factors such as being at a gas station just prior to getting tested. When she asked if she took her son to get retested with making sure he wasn’t near a gas station beforehand, would the numbers dropped, the doctor didn’t directly answer that question, but instead stated that benzene enters and leaves the body very quickly. She mentioned getting him tested for heavy metals, and again he claimed it would pointless as the levels would be too minimal to be tested.
In a court decision on May 20th, SoCalGas was ordered to pay for a professional, comprehensive cleaning of homes according to a special protocol. The gas company then offered this service to only those who were still relocated. But after environmental health specialists observed that some of the homes were given a shoddy cleaning, Public Health issued a work order to make sure the cleaners followed the protocol. SoCalGas went back to court in the summer to claim they shouldn’t have to clean any more homes, even though residents falling in the other categories mentioned at the community meeting were left out. And it’s worth noting that any services that SoCalGas provided the residents, such as relocation and cleaning, were forced upon the utility by the court.
In the meantime there were some more leaks from Aliso, without notification to the public, and on September 12th, on the day of another leak, SoCalGas had conducted acidizing on the wells at its site.
THE BOARD OF SUPERVISORS AND THE HEALTH STUDY
The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office presented some challenges to the Aliso crisis. On September 13th, the county’s criminal charges against SoCalGas were resolved in court. The gas company pleaded no contest to failing to timely report the leak to the California Office of Emergency Services and to the Los Angeles County Fire Department. The county allowed the rest of the counts to be dismissed. Under the terms of the agreement, SoCalGas will pay up to approximately $4.3 million. Of this money, $553,500 covered fines and the cost of the investigation and emergency response by the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Health and Hazardous Materials Division. The rest of the settlement was to cover the cost of installing and operating methane monitors. No money was allocated back to the area that was harmed by the delayed notification, and in addition, residents were denied restitution, which is counter to what’s in the state Constitution under Marsy’s Law.
There would be further attempts by residents’ lawyers to appeal this decision to block residents from being able to seek restitution. The Second District Court of Appeals heard the case on May 23, 2019. Among the lawyers representing the Aliso victims was former county district Attorney Steve Cooley. He said restitution can be and should be ordered when there’s a criminal conviction.” He called this another step in a long process to bring justice to the many, many victims. Damages done to them, the losses they’ve suffered because of the negligence and recklessness of SoCalGas.” The question remains why would the county not fight for residents’ rights to restitution that are articulated in the state constitution?
The AQMD hearing board held a community meeting in Woodland Hills on September 17th, and heard from residents about their health problems. Many felt the continuing leaking of toxic chemicals, despite the site being offline, was contributing to their nosebleeds, fatigue, rashes, migraines, asthma, and other symptoms.
That month, at the County Board of Supervisors meeting, Supervisors Michael Antonovich, who represented those in the north valley, and Sheila Kuehl, who represented the south valley residents, asked Public Health to partner with AQMD to come up with a scope for a health study. The health panel that was convened on October 26th, included experts from Public Health, OEHHA, the state department of Public Health, CARB, the EPA, AQMD, and academic researchers from USC and UC Irvine.
The scope the expert panel agreed to, similar to the initial scope proposed by OEHHA, would cost in the range of $35–40 million, according to Public Health. The study would examine health outcomes associated with toxic releases from the facility, and monitor the health and well-being of exposed members of the population over several years. In addition, it would include an estimation of long-term toxicological risks, continuous air monitoring at the field and in the community to evaluate ongoing exposures, evaluation of broader impacts of the blowout on quality of life and well-being, and would include community engagement.
On October 18th, Public Health sent the County Board of Supervisors a letter about a health study for both Aliso and Exide, reminding the supervisors about what the AQMD ordered earlier in the year, including the identification of potentially concerning chemicals and a determination of chronic toxicity values for the odorants used by the gas company, and that the AQMD had to sue SoCalGas for refusing to honor the abatement order. The letter also mentioned the September 27th motion that instructed Public Health to work with the AQMD to convene that panel of health experts. Public Health was to work with the CARB, California Department of Public Health, OEHHA, and the U.S. EPA.
Public Health said this study was necessary as the disaster was unprecedented and that symptoms occurring after returning home were similar to what was seen during the blowout, and that SoCalGas’ failure to properly clean all homes of those with symptoms had “impeded recovery of the community’s health and wellbeing.”
The department gave three recommendations: 1. Establish an Expert Scientific Advisory Panel, 2. Prioritize Community Engagement, and 3. Release Environmental Data Files. The last involved the release of environmental and health data by SoCalGas, DOGGR, and the CPUC to the advisory panel.
MORE PROBLEMS AT ALISO
In the fall of 2016, SoCalGas sent out a newsletter to its “neighbors” regarding steps it was taking to be “transparent.” The utility discussed its new infrared methane detection system, “as part of our overall effort to identify potential releases.” Of course, this was not the gas company’s idea, but was part of the agreement in settling the criminal charges.
Also mentioned was a notification system that residents can sign up for to receive notification when there’s a leak. But many residents noted that they never received these notifications, no matter how many times they’ve tried to sign up. Other residents felt that getting these notifications hours after the problem was reported and often fixed was laughable and not helpful.
In addition, SoCalGas mentioned it was starting a Aliso Canyon Community Advisory Committee in its “continued effort to maintain transparency and open dialogue with residents.” It said this committee would include residents, business owners, and community members. But many residents would disagree about the “transparency” claim as the list of members were never made public, there wasn’t a website with streaming of meetings, or even minutes of those meetings, nor was any other information given to residents. The local neighborhood councils apparently were approached, but only a couple seemed interested in having a board member participate. It became known, however, that one member of this group was an outlier real estate agent who had testified at a CPUC hearing a few months before and claimed that many of her neighbors had faked being sick in order to obtain relocation.
In addition to the newsletters for its dear “neighbors,” SoCalGas also sent out a press release touting these actions.
In the next few months there were more “accidents” at Aliso that could have affected residents. One occurred on November 21st, when bromine trifluoride (misspelled in the notification sent hours later) was released into the air. Among the risks for this chemical: severe skin burns, eye damage, and corrosion to respiratory tract. Yet, “There is no risk to the health and safety of Porter Ranch and the surrounding community,” according to the notification.
Just five days into 2017, there was a diesel fuel spill from Aliso into Limekiln Canyon Creek; the notification was sent at 1pm (four hours after it started). This same month, SoCalGas was trying to get the abatement order dismissed, but it was extended by the AQMD hearing board on January 14th.
STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO IN WHICH RESIDENTS SPEAK UP AND TAKE CONTROL