Incompetent, Corrupt, Or Impotent: How Public Agencies Mishandled The Aliso Canyon Disaster In The San Fernando Valley, Part Two
Part two in an ongoing history of an unresolved crisis.
Recap of Part One: When a leak was discovered at the SoCalGas storage site in Aliso Canyon on October 23, 2015, the utility failed to give timely and proper noticed to agencies, schools, and the residents who lived nearby. It soon became apparent that this was an uncontrollable blowout. Within a few weeks, the Country Department of Public Health issued the first of many fact sheets that attributed people’s symptoms to the mercaptan odorants added to the natural gas. Even after well SS-25 was deemed sealed, the residents continued to have symptoms.
RESIDENTS VS.THE DEPARTMENT OF CONSERVATION
In November 2015, SoCalGas was pressing the Dept. of Conservation was pressing for the go-ahead to resume operations at the Aliso facility. But first the DOGGR and CPUC planned a dog and pony show to convince residents that the wells were now safe to use.
Required by SB-380 to give the public an opportunity to comment, a two day hearing was announced in Woodland Hills with the same agenda for both days. This agenda was described as a forty-minute presentation about the safety review process for the wells, twenty minutes for comments by public officials, and a little over an hour for “small group discussions” regarding the safety review findings, the proposed pressure limits, and concerns about Aliso. Then 35 minutes for a summary of the discussions, a review of “key themes’ and closing comments from DOC officials.
When residents found out that they weren’t going to be able to directly address the state officials as a way to be dismissive of what the local communities have gone through in the last 15 months, many of them started contacting elected officials, the officials at the DOC, and media to demand that a true public comment session be held instead of time spent talking to “dudes with clipboards.”
About a week later, an email was sent out revising the agenda, now allotting an hour and 15 minutes to public comments.
Even then, residents knew from other hearings that a total of two and a half hours over the two nights wouldn’t cover all who would want to come up to the microphone. What the DOC did was to underestimate the extent of residents’ passion to speak up about how Aliso affected their families and themselves. A few days before the first hearing, a group of residents met and came up with a plan.
After the facilitator for the hearings was about to start the presentation on the first night, the president of Save Porter Ranch, Matt Pakucko, came up to the front and used a bullhorn to invite all members of Save Porter Ranch and any children there to stand with him. He told the DOC officials that those in the audience didn’t need to sit through the presentation, which was posted on the DOC’s website. He said the elected officials should speak and then those who have been affected by Aliso need to talk about their experiences.
One of the officials addressing the representatives of the DOC was Public Health’s Bellomo who said that Public Health wants the DOC to consider three key requirements before possibly reopening Aliso. First, the root cause analysis must be completed. Second, there’s a need for a continuous monitoring system. Third, a comprehensive health study needs to be conducted. At the two-day session, many residents spoke over several hours about the symptoms they and their families were enduring.
In addition to Bellomo’s spiel, Public Health sent a letter to DOGGR on February 6, noting that the safety review being conducted on the Aliso wells didn’t address environmental and health threats to the communities in the area. It brought up that there hadn’t been a root cause analysis, and the study didn’t address the need for air monitoring or consider the risk factors and the fact that the site is located on a fault. Also, it mentioned that the DOC hadn’t identified the “fingerprints” of the chemicals used onsite and that the exposure may have been for several years.
The County’s counsel Mary Wickham reiterated the concerns of the Public Health Dept. in a letter to the state. She also discussed the uneasiness on the part of the Los Angeles County Fire Department over the more than a dozen inadequacies in the risk management plan that the gas company had submitted, from not having a plan specific for Aliso Canyon (it discussed all the storage facilities in general), to having out of date pages that were last revised prior to the onset of the blowout, to a lack of consideration for the seismic dangers. Moreover, DOGGR had let the County know that the agency wasn’t going to require SoCalGas to make the indicated changes until after new regulations were implemented.
The letter said that DOGGR was violating SB-380 and its own emergency order 1109. She stated that there should not be any injection into the Aliso wells until these matters have been resolved and a proper risk management plan and seismic studies have been completed. She also said that the chemical composition needed to be included in the safety review that DOGGR was conducting, and that each well needed to have subsurface safety valves installed.
Other experts weighed. A CSUN professor of geology, Matthew D’Alessio, sent in a written comment for the docket. He describe how the Aliso wells cross the Santa Susana fault as well as the Frew fault, and how standard models have shown that the average slip along the SSF will be approximately three feet in size during a major earthquake.
HOW THE AQMD HARMED RESIDENTS
There was a surprising and shocking announcement on February 8th, in that the AQMD and SoCalGas lawyers agreed to end the abatement order for $8.5-million, including a $1 million “health study.” This payout by SoCalGas supposedly was to fund “an enhanced assessment of residents’ exposure to air pollution from the leak; a community health survey; and an analysis of potential associations between reported health effects and exposure to air pollutants.”
So despite a panel of health experts agreeing to a health study just a few months prior that would cost $35-million, the lawyers representing the AQMD governing board decided to agree to let SoCalGas off the hook with paying for a study for less than five percent of that amount.
At the next AQMD hearing board meeting, on March 2nd, residents along with Bellomo and Rangan of Public Health, told the AQMD that the agreement was unacceptable, but an AQMD lawyer said the decision stands.
A PHYSICIAN STEPS UP
Just a few weeks after the onset of the blowout, one local physician started questioning the types of symptoms he was seeing in his patients. Dr. Jeffrey Nordella began ordering complete blood counts, x-rays, and other tests to try to figure out what was going on.
In February 2017, the Los Angeles Daily News published an article in which the doctor said a pattern of health symptoms had emerged among the almost 50 patients he had followed since just after the beginning of the blowout. The article came out just a few days before the secretive courtroom deal between the AQMD and SoCalGas was announced.
Among the disturbing findings, he found abnormal pulmonary functions in some patients and low red blood cell counts in others. Public Health’s Bellomo agreed with the doctor’s assertion about the need for further investigation. But he also said that his department can’t do a long-term health study on its own, that such a study requires several agencies collaborating at the state and local level.
In a communication entitled “An Appropriate Health Study for Residents Affected by the Aliso Canyon Gas Release,” dated February 16th, Public Health acknowledged that “the likely cause of the illnesses observed in residents of Porter Ranch were the unknown chemicals that SCG injected into the well in late October 2015 in an effort to plug the well.” That the nosebleeds and other symptoms could not be explained by just methane, the odorants, or the trace carcinogens contained in the gas emissions. The memo said that SoCalGas had repeatedly refused to provide information about what was injected or emitted from the wells and it was plausible that a chemical could be causing the massive, severe symptoms that have been seen in the residents in the SFV. “Only a long-term study that is prospective in nature (i.e., a duration of at least several years) and has sufficient sample size to detect rare chronic diseases is adequate to answer obvious health questions (e.g., Can this exposure cause chronic lung disease, cancer, or other chronic conditions?)”, the statement explained. It wasn’t know if this memo, given to a group of residents a few months later, was distributed elsewhere.
At a town hall sponsored by the PRNC on February 22nd, residents heard from Dr. Nordella and Public Health’s Rangan.
Dr. Nordella discussed his study of patients and also the noted symptoms of various chemicals such as radon, lead, and strontium. He stated that he could not find a study that explained the cumulative effects of the chemicals that could be affecting the community. He also brought up the incidences of leukemia, including cases found in children, in the North Valley. His conclusion was that a large patient population was needed for a study and that cooperation and collaboration was needed with a more in-depth, unbiased professional study conducted by researchers from outside California. As for baseline tests, he suggested getting a CBC, a chemical panel, and chest x-rays to start. He also pointed out that some chemicals have a half-life collected in the fatty tissues of the body to be released.
After one resident said that Public Health was playing softball with a conglomerate, Rangan came to the microphone and said that Dr. Nordella had validated what Public Health had seen and agreed there was a need for a proper health study. Regarding the agreement reached between the AQMD and SoCalGas, he said the amount will pay for a “$1-million non-health study” and that Public Health with its lawyers were exploring “every avenue” for a comprehensive study such as the one scoped out the year before that would cost a minimum of $35-million. He claimed his department didn’t have input into the agreement made that month.
Among the residents’ comments concerned the lack of knowledge about what chemicals have been emitted by the wells and why there hadn’t been toxicology testing. This became a major point of contention between the residents and Rangan. When residents brought up the letter sent to health providers telling them not to conduct toxicology tests for their patients, the toxicologist tried to justify that communication. He said the doctors were automatically attributing symptoms to the gas. The issue came up, he said, because of the idea that clinicians would diagnosis patients over the phone or that people would self-diagnose. Rangan said he didn’t want residents to have these symptoms and not get help.
But Public Health also didn’t want people with undiagnosed problems, Rangan added. He said the letter didn’t say not to consider Aliso when it came to residents’ symptoms, but at that point, many in the audience pointed out that “we read the letter and that wasn’t true.” He claimed Public Health did apologize the year before for the letter for the effect and misunderstanding that came from it, but residents at the meeting disagreed that there had been an apology. And no one was aware that a letter was sent to the health providers to correct any impressions that resulted from the March 2016 letter. Certainly no such update had been found.
On April 1st, a community forum about human and animal health featured a Q&A with State Senator Stern, Dr. Nordella, local veterinarian David Smith, as well as Matt Pakucko of SPR and Alex Nagy of Food & Water Watch, which organized the event with Save Porter Ranch.
Around this time, many parents at Castlebay Elementary were talking about how many of their children’s’ teachers have been getting seriously ill. One beloved kindergarten teacher Susie Kimmel was diagnosed with bone and bladder cancer. KCBS2 interviewed Kimmel as well as family members of teachers who had already passed from cancer. Sadly, between the time she was interviewed and when her interview aired, the teacher succumbed to forms of cancer that are associated with exposure to toxic chemicals. As of May 2017, she was the sixth teacher diagnosed with cancer since 2007. Considering that there are usually 28 to 30 teachers at this school, that should be a significant red flag. As part of the two-part series on the cancer situation at Castlebay, CBS2 obtained a document that showed that there were a long list of toxic chemicals that had been emitted from Aliso between 2000 and 2014.
There were also others in the area who were getting this tragic diagnosis, including at least two cases of AML, a form of leukemia linked to exposure to benzene.
Resident spotted a hazmat placard for Acrolein on a truck entering SCG gate on April 25th, but after the public outcry, SoCalGas lied about using an herbicide for weed control. Breathing in large amounts of Acrolein damages the lungs and could cause death. Breathing lower amounts may cause eye watering and burning of the nose and throat and a decreased breathing rate. Just more chemicals to be exposed to from the Aliso site.
Residents and SPR members met with Public Health officials on May 25th and received a copy of the February memo that mentioned the agency had logged health complaints within a 12-mile radius of the damaged well. It also discussed that other chemicals, undisclosed by SoCalGas can be causing the symptoms.
REOPENING OF ALISO’S GAS STORAGE FACILITY
The next shocking development in the Aliso odyssey happened on July 19th when the Department of Conservation (DOGGR and the CPUC) announced the decision to allow Aliso Canyon to resume operations. In many residents’ minds, that action was a clear violation of SB-380. This bill, which was signed into law the year before, was a moratorium on injection of any natural gas into Aliso until “a comprehensive review of the safety of the gas storage wells at the facility is completed…the risks of failures identified in the review have been addressed” and that this was to “prevent damage to life, health, property, and natural resources.” At that time, the root cause analysis was in progress and would take several months to complete.
Another issue that was ignored by the DOC was the seismic risk. Geologists warned the state at the February hearings, about the safety of Aliso, that the wells are in danger of being damaged or destroyed by a major earthquake. The Santa Susana fault transverses each of the wells, and there are other faults in close proximately. One well, SS 4–0, was damaged during the 1994 Northridge quake, requiring the well to be permanently taken out of service.
The question of earthquake safety was brought up by this reporter at the December 2018 SoCalGas Aliso open house (held at its Chatsworth office), and the representatives there discussed how the wells would be checked after a major quake. But many residents are worried that if there was an eruption on the Santa Susana fault, or another nearby fault, there could be several well failures at once and could lead to the catastrophic event that James Mansdorfer, formerly a gas storage asset development manager for SoCalGas, warned about. In that case, there may not be a storage facility left to check. In addition, preeminent earthquake expert Dr. Lucy Jones had warned that an event on the southern end of the San Andreas fault could emit enough energy to set off other faults in Southern California.
The county’s pleading included an email that Mansdorfer wrote in 2009 to company officials when he was a manager at Aliso. In the memo, he noted that the more than 100 gas wells were vulnerable to being sheared off by a large earthquake on the Santa Susana Fault that would be catastrophic to the area.
Mansdorfer suggested SoCal Gas include in its 2012 rate increase request a budget for adding subsurface safety valves to all the wells below the level of the Santa Susana Fault. He noted that safety valves have been improved over the years.
He told the Los Angeles Daily News, “My belief is that there is potential for catastrophic loss of life, and in light of SoCalGas refusal to openly address this risk, my ethics just will not allow me to stand by without making the public aware of what could happen.”
Bret Lane, then senior vice president, replied, “We will keep the Santa Susana issue out of the (rate case) for now.” Since then, Lane had become president and Chief Operating Officer of SoCal Gas.
In April 2017, Mansdorfer, now a private contractor, told state gas regulators that the storage site was seismically unsafe and that he had made repeated, but unsuccessful efforts to get SoCal Gas to address the risk. The county received this letter along with other documents requested of DOGGR.
Despite an attempt by the County to get a stay, gas injections resumed in some wells on July 31. That was after approximately 640 days in which Aliso was offline and yet didn’t cause one single incidence of a blackout, despite the “chicken little” claims by SoCalGas and the DOC.
What did continue were problems at the site. On August 10th, there was a 10.1ppm spike of methane. On the SoCalGas website, the utility claimed to send a notification to the community, but many residents didn’t receive it. Then on August 28th, SoCalGas sent a letter to DOGGR and the CPUC regarding a pressure build up which resulted in a third of the wells in use being used taken out of service.
HEAVY METALS AREN’T JUST ABOUT MUSIC
Earlier in the summer of 2017, a number of residents agreed to take part in a program to test their urine for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and/or hair specimens for metals. Dr. Nordella had arranged for an out-of-state laboratory to analyze the samples, and compare the results to control groups in other areas of the country. But while the doctor was compiling a report, he was terminated, by the urgent care facility at which he worked. Many residents felt his firing was a result of his work on the communities’ behalf.
On October 14, the doctor presented his findings of his independent health study at a community town hall. Among the results were high levels of BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, which is often found in connection with gas and petroleum operations, and in fracking operations) detected in the urine specimens. Also found were styrene and Phenylglyoxylic acid (PGO). The levels were considered higher than the samples from the rest of California as noted at the presentation. The hair specimens showed significant levels of uranium, lithium, and other metals. Again, these findings were significantly greater in the group compared to the control samples.
In fact, the scientists at the lab told Nordella that “The anomalies of certain chemicals found in the samples were significant. This group was uniquely different than other similar testing we have done. Therefore, we sternly suggest further investigation into these findings.”
State Senator Henry Stern, after finding out the results, told the audience at the town hall that he wanted Aliso to be shut down immediately and publicly called on Governor Jerry Brown to sign an executive order to get that accomplished.
Other elected officials weighed in. Congressman Brad Sherman, who represents the area south of Rinaldi, issued a press release calling for “a comprehensive, independent, long-term health study.”
City Councilman Englander responded with a request that the City of Los Angeles Health Commission and the LA Department of Water and Power report back in a year from when his motion passed on the levels of styrene, ethylbenzene, uranium and lithium in the local water, as well as in the hair and urine samples provided by residents in Porter Ranch and surrounding communities as well as check on the status of “health study updates mandated by the settlement agreement” between the AQMD and SoCalGas. One point he would keep making was that the city didn’t have any jurisdiction over Aliso. But while much of the facility is on county land, some of the wells there were actually on city property. Not just that, but the majority of those who had been getting ill were city residents.
Neither Steve Knight, the congressman at that time for the area north of Rinaldi, which includes the gas storage facility, nor Dante Acosta, who represented the assembly district between December 2016 and November 2018, publicly commented on the Nordella study.
By this time, everyone had given up on the getting SB-57 passed. Senator Stern’s bill would have extended the moratorium imposed on Aliso until at least a root cause analysis had been completed. As this was legislation marked as “urgent,” there was a higher standard applied as far as voting. Unfortunately, it fell short by three votes as it needed 27 votes in favor. SoCalGas had mounted a campaign to keep it from passing, with help from organizations which were given donations by the utility.
One bill that did pass, also introduced by Senator Stern, was SB-801, which directed the LA Department of Water and Power to de-emphasize gas-fired generation and put a greater reliance on renewable resources.
Just a couple of weeks after this town hall, the doctor was interviewed by Capital & Main’s Larry Buhl. He explained further the implications of the chemicals found. For example, styrene is a volatile organic compound that is often used in oil and gas production, and a carcinogen that is metabolized in the liver. He also said that when more than one chemical enters the body, the mix can have different effects than each one individually, an effect that is “polypharmaceutical.”
He mentioned the Leighton report from the year before, and questioned the decision not to test for benzene in the wipe portion of the study, as well as the lack of disclosure about the presence of acrolein.
Around this time, local resident Andrew Krowne, created the Environmental Health Tracker (EHT) app that allowed users to submit and store electronic reports of health symptoms caused by near-by environmental or man-made disasters. There were at least 1,750 users tracking symptoms believed to be associated with the SoCalGas storage facilities in Aliso Canyon and Playa Del Rey.
Krowne explained, “Since its launch in October 2017, at the Dr. Nordella Town Hall, EHT has established itself as a vital component, recording over 52,000 symptoms, not only in the fight to close down Aliso Canyon, but as a way for individuals, moms, dads, grandmas and grandpas to track when they are sick and when their family members are sick. This is vital information that can be easily presented to personal physicians. As time went on and the user base rapidly grew, we also discovered that the agencies we thought were out to help us, weren’t. EHT is a way to help the community keep agencies and regulators honest as well as provide the latest information to elected officials in the hopes of passing relevant legislation.”
Not only was the app convenient for a resident to keep track of symptoms, but it served as a more reliable indicator of how sick residents were continuing to become, especially when public agencies’ data was becoming more suspect.
MORE SOCALGAS PROBLEMS
During the next few months, there were more leaks reported including major ones on September 13th (6.8ppm) and on October 13th (24.9ppm). Remember the “normal” level for methane was considered to be 2.0ppm.
Then on December 1st, residents were realizing something was once again wrong at Aliso as they were feeling the usual symptoms they get when it is leaking. After finding that the SoCalGas monitor #8 showed a spike of 56.1ppm, some residents took to Twitter to notify local media and elected officers, using the SoCalGas handle to let the gas company know that word was getting around. Immediately the tweeters received a message from the utility that the reading was because of venting from planned maintenance and that a notification will be going out. The leak was spotted after 7pm, but the notification, sent four hours later, said the release was “related to planned venting associated with maintenance work being conducted at the facility.”
The next Tuesday, a SoCalGas vice president was on the hot seat at the LA City Council meeting because of a mercaptan spill in West LA and the latest leak at Aliso. Councilman Englander once again complained about finding out about a major leak at Aliso from his constituents and not directly from SoCalGas, just as he did two years before.
The AQMD held a Health Study Scoping Community Hearing in Porter Ranch on December 14th, at which residents told Jo Kay Ghosh, the Health Effects Officer for the AQMD, that they don’t believe a one-million dollar study can even begin to study the health complaints. The residents also registered their feelings that Public Health could not be trusted to do a decent job on the study, and rejected the draft that the AQMD had presented. Other comments voiced included that the entire Northern SFV needs to be studied, not just Porter Ranch, as the symptoms were felt over a 12-mile radius, a fact verified by Public Health, earlier that year. There was concern about lost data or poor choices of seeking data by the researchers (e.g. relying on emergency room visits when it was more likely that residents saw their own doctors), and the need to study all chemicals that came from the wells, and not just odorants (many cited that SoCalGas continues to withhold the necessary information about which chemicals it has used). And a few mentioned that residents affected by the Deepwater Spill of 2010 were part of a properly-funded health study. Also suggested was using the National Institute of Health or Dr. Nordella to conduct the study and that the study that was scoped out in October 2016 should be used.
Then on December 18th, there was a 66.6ppm leak, but the SCG monitors were discovered to be set to “private.” The SCG notification said “an unplanned release” that started at approximately 4:55pm, lasted 50 minutes, and that the monitor portal was set to “offline.” The notification was received at 7:42pm. This incident led to the AQMD receiving many complaints, and the agency issued a public nuisance complaint that they referred to in a media advisory.
The new year brought news about a report entitled “Long-Term Viability of Underground Natural Gas Storage in California: An Independent Review of Scientific and Technical Information,” that was critical of the gas company’s management. The USC-led study, requested by Governor Brown, concluded that corporate dysfunction and lax regulatory oversight led to the disaster. The engineer who was the senior author noted that SoCalGas was aware of a problem with SS-25 as far back as 1992. He also mentioned the inadequate record keeping, the lack of a comprehensive risk management plan nor any testing programs or plans in place to remediate wells.
In 2018, SoCalGas withdrew gas from Aliso on several occasions between February 20th and 24th. Senator Stern sent a letter to CPUC on March 5, regarding these withdrawals, citing the lack of safety reviews and the root cause analysis, and the unknown chemicals used at the site which could be causing “the ongoing health crisis in the exposed community.” Calling the supply problem “a contrived emergency,” he asked, “Why were multiple pipelines taken out of service prior to the winter season and what is the status of their repairs?” Among the pipelines he was referring to were the 3000, which was out of service since July 29, 2016, and 235–2, which suffered a rupture on October 1, 2017.
The CPUC said on June 18, 2018, that they were taking two actions to address this issue by recommending an increase in the amount stored at Aliso and by asking the gas company for information about the pipelines. In its letter to SoCalGas, the regulatory agency seemed to be more concerned with the impact these outages were creating on system reliability and costs for ratepayers than with how the operation at Aliso affected residents in the northern SFV. But the CPUC seemed impotent in resolving the issue of three separate pipelines being out of service for over a year, while SoCalGas managed to push back the estimated time for the completion of repairs. The most recent Envoy report on June 4, 2019 gave updates. Regarding pipeline 235–2’s update: “The latest preliminary estimated return to service date is July 5, 2019 at a reduced pressure” while the root cause analysis was finalized on April 27, 2018. For pipeline 4000, the status was listed as: “Validations digs will start after Line 235–2 is back in-service. The estimated return to service date for Line 235–2 is being confirmed, but an estimated date (July 5, 2019) has been provided.” The status update for 3000 is: “Currently operating at a reduced pressure to achieve prudent safety margin for this pipeline.”
MORE ABOUT THE HEALTH EFFECTS FROM ALISO
On March 29, 2018, the Northridge West Neighborhood Council hosted a health town hall featuring Dr. Norella’s updated findings. The presentation was an update of the October 14, 2017 town hall. The PowerPoint presentation can be found on the Save Porter Ranch website at http://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/3d1481_e78b110e4a49487a9f1b100fd77503c6.pdf.
Public Health’s Angelo Bellomo said in a May 2018 CBS2 interview that Public Health didn’t know what chemicals have been emitted by the Aliso wells and that SoCalGas refused to release that information. But in response to the story, SoCalGas insisted a statement being included that said, “there was and is no long-term risk to public health or safety from the gas leak” and that information was “shared with members of the public.“ SoCal Gas has been, and will continue to be, responsive to requests from public health officials for information about materials and chemicals used in our operations.” All the while, the utility’s secrets and lies were about to be revealed in depositions given for the residents’ lawsuits.
A deposition taken on May 1st of the SoCalGas chemical engineer responsible for testing for various chemicals over the years, was released publicly on July 11th. Among the revelations: according to the engineer’s document, years before, there were “levels of benzene that were pretty high in earlier days … they just quit testing for benzene entirely.” The levels ranged from 220ppm to 447ppm, which was 200,000 to 447,000 times the level considered “safe” by OEHHA. Because of a complaint from plaintiff lawyers that the SoCalGas law firm’s attorneys were “coaching the witness” and presenting “nuisance objections,” a second round of testimony occurred with the same witness in July, with the judge present.
Early on, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) became involved in the evaluation of potential health impacts of emissions from the gas blowout. It claimed that Porter Ranch neighborhood air sampling data released by SoCalGas had not generally indicated that detectable levels of tert-butyl mercaptan or tetrahydrothiophene were present in those samples. According to its report, the health effects from Porter Ranch residents were consistent with low-level, acute exposure to mercaptans. But one important aspect that needs to be emphasized: Its source of data regarding benzene came from the SoCalGas website. Even after information regarding benzene found at the wells came out in the chemical engineer’s deposition, no one apparently let this agency know it should reevaluate its report. In May 2018, the OEHHA reiterated that chemical levels were not high enough to be causing serious illnesses among residents in the northern SFV, and its information not updated.
On the same day the first deposition of chemical engineer May Lew was made public, Dr Nordella addressed the PRNC about the health effects of high levels of benzene and announced he will start a study of residents’ blood work to track the presence of the carcinogen at the PRNC meeting. He named the new study the ACMSS, The Aliso Canyon Medical Surveillance Study. This research would include a sample sampling of about 1,000 residents using simple blood tests taken every six months for at least three years. The idea was to track changes in the overall white blood count, the percentage of lymphocytes, and the platelet count. This will track benzene exposure’s effect on the subjects.
Reporting on the Health Study Technical Advisory Group (HSTAG) meeting that was held a few months before, he pointed out the one million dollars allocated to the study agreed to by the AQMD and SoCalGas the year before will be divided into two $500,000 allotments. The first allotment will be for reassessing the community for “symptomatology.” But Dr. Nordella felt a patient-directive study would be more beneficial to the community.
He explained that toxins will metabolize in the liver. Specifically, benzene could cause dysplastic changes in one stem cell, creating benzene oxide that can lead to cancers of the blood including AML and multiple myeloma. He noted that children are at a greater risk due to higher basal metabolic rates, as are adults with specific genetic mutations. He warned that high levels of benzene will have one end stage: that one’s bone marrow can be wiped out.
The doctor had sent the other members of the HSTAG the plan for his study about six weeks prior to this meeting, but had not heard back from any of the other health experts. As a result, his study will be conducted independently of the AQMD study, but may be used to overlay with other results.
Stay tuned for Part 3: What will $119 million buy?