Incompetent, Corrupt, or Impotent: How Public Agencies Mishandled the San Fernando Valley disaster at Aliso Canyon: Part Four
The fourth part in our ongoing series.
Recap of Part Three: The government comes to a $119.5-million agreement with SoCalGas, firefighters sue the gas company, a wind study shows Aliso produces fugitive emissions of particulate matter, a local doctor fights for data, and the root cause analysis proves that mismanagement and poor management caused the 2015 blowout.
A QUESTION OF RELIABILITY and PIPELINES
Since the blowout occurred, the topic of whether Aliso Canyon is needed for energy reliability has been discussed and debated topic every year. On March 21, 2019, the California Energy Commission (CEC) opened docket 19-IEPR-09 on “Southern California Energy Reliability” for the 2019 discussion.
At one of the reliability hearings, one expert giving testimony was Rod Walker, of Walker and Associates, who had served on an Aliso Canyon Independent Review Team. One slide in his presentation seemed to be pointedly directed toward SoCalGas: “A GOOD OPERATOR KNOWS THEIR SYSTEM AND IS SEEKING TO CONSTANTLY IMPROVE ITS SAFETY AND RELIABILITY REGARDLESS OF WHETHER THE ACTIONS ARE REQUIRED”. He felt that a company should plan ahead, using redundancy as improvements take time. He also pointed out that the natural gas system is different for California as for other parts of the country in storage and gas distribution. Much of his presentation concerned the problems concerning the SoCalGas pipelines.
One point was that the pipelines was discussed especially as pipelines will continue to age. Walker questioned the problems with Aliso that should have been tackled by SoCalGas long before the blowout.
Many residents and environmental groups felt that SoCalGas was deliberately using the broken pipelines as a means to manipulate supply to justify the use of Aliso Canyon.
As for the current status of the pipeline situation, per an October 22, 2019, update from the Envoy website: “The in-line inspection for Line 235–2 is continuing and is on-schedule to be completed 11/1/19. Line 235–2 was returned to service as of 12:00AM PCT 10/15/19 at a reduced pressure and an in-line inspection was immediately initiated, which required that gas only flow from Needles Subzone due to the pressure requirements of the in-line inspection process.
“All six validation digs have been completed ahead of schedule and the pressure restoration process was successful. Based on this, the return to service for Line 4000 at a reduced pressure is 10/24/19.
“Line 3000 (largely a 1957 vintage pipeline) returned to service at a reduced operating pressure on September 17, 2018, allowing receipts from the Topock Sub Zone. The full scope of the Line 3000 project to date included more than 10 miles of non-consecutive pipeline replacements, coating remediation, and cathodic protection insulator installations at more than 246 job sites that span approximately 125 miles, traversing challenging terrain and overcoming significant environmental challenges. Having Line 3000 back in service improves system flexibility and resiliency even though the capacity of the Needles/Topock Area Zone is limited to 440MMcfd due to losses on Lines 235–2 and 4000. Line 3000 is currently operating at a capacity reduction due to a reduction in operating pressure which is necessary to allow for an appropriate margin of safety until the Line 3000 can be re-evaluated with both an additional ILI assessment, and implementation of applicable lessons learned from Line 235–2.”
In the last six months, the gas company had withdrawn gas from the facility on several occasions. On August 28, 2019 0.115 bcf was withdrawn, and on September 9th, .108 bcf. This was after the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved a new withdrawal protocol in July. From November 20, 2019 through January 13, 2020 (55 days), there has been at least 28 days on which SoCalGas withdrew gas from Aliso Canyon wells.
While SoCalGas and regulators had presumed the need for Aliso Canyon to be in operation, there had been research to the contrary. Among two studies that have been recited often by environmental groups and residents to counter the claims that Aliso is needed have been the Powers and the EEC studies.
In April 2016, the group Consumer Watchdog had sent a letter to Senator pro tem Kevin de Leon, assembly speaker Anthony Rendon and utility oversight committee chairs Senator Mike Gatto and Assembly member Ben Hueso. This letter claimed reports released by the CPUC, Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power (DWP), SoCalGas, and other state energy regulators made misleading claims regarding the possibility of blackouts occurring if Aliso’s operations were curtailed. The group alleged that the utility was manipulating the public’s perception regarding blackouts in order to justify the use of Aliso.
One of those backing the idea that other resources could be used, rather than Aliso, was Bill Powers, an engineer with many years of experience specializing in energy system evaluations. His report presented a winter risk assessment and action plan that included the use of mitigation measures.
In 2017, another study came out that also looked at alternatives to Aliso. The County of Los Angeles commissioned the study from EES Consulting. Its report found that the mitigation measures put in place to maintain system reliability were working, and that the resumption of injections was unnecessary in the near term. In addition, the company provided another series of recommendations.
There will be further developments near the end of 2019 that will affect the issue of reliability. In the next section, two additional studies, both about transitioning off the use of gas will be discussed.
DECARBONIZATION: Or how SoCalGas is spending ratepayer money to keep gas alive
Two bills signed by Governor Brown in September 2018 concerned emissions from buildings. SB-1477 asked the CPUC to form two programs (BUILD and TECH) to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions that result from buildings. The second bill, AB-3232, initiated an assessment of the feasibility of reducing these emissions by 2030.
These bills led the CPUC to open a rulemaking order on decarbonization of new buildings (R.19–01–011) in order to implement SB-1477, to come up with pilot programs to address new construction in areas damaged by wildfires, to align the CPUC policies with Title 24 and Title 20 standards, and to establish a building decarbonization policy framework.
Among the entities requesting party status for the proceeding was a group called Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions (C4BES), which described itself in its March 13, 2019, motion as “a coalition of natural and renewable natural gas users.” It claimed its goal was to educate about how natural and renewable gas can help improve the environment and provide for a strong economy. By taking part in the OIR, it will represent “the interests of gas industrial, commercial and residential users to the conversation.” No mention of SoCalGas or Sempra.
But just 12 days later, in another motion, the description changed slightly. Now C4BES “is a coalition of natural gas and renewable gas suppliers and users. We represent members of the public, small and large businesses, labor, agriculture, and nonprofits that serve seniors and low-income communities.” It further stated that “We should not simply assume that all energy solutions to achieve carbon neutrality are known to us today, as Southern California Gas Company’s testimony reminds us.”
What SoCalGas had a part in, was the creation of “an astroturf group.” According to Wikipedia, astroturfing is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization (e.g., political, advertising, religious or public relations) to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants.
On May 14th, the Sierra Club filed a motion to deny party status to C4BES. Among the points made: 1) SoCalGas was primarily, if not entirely, responsible for founding C4BES; 2) SoCalGas is on the board of C4BES; 3) SoCalGas recruited members to join C4BES; 4) SoCalGas retained a communications firm to develop C4BES objectives and talking points prior to member recruitment; and 5) SoCalGas substantially compensated at least one C4BES board member after he agreed to join the organization. The motion brought up that the group violated Rule 1.4(b)(2) of the Commission’s Rules of Practice and Procedure by not fully disclosing the relationship with SoCalGas.
SoCalGas responded that the Sierra Club’s motion was an attempt to silence an opposing viewpoint.
The Public Advocates office (an independent entity of the CPUC which represents ratepayers in the agency proceedings) filed a motion on May 31st, saying that if the Sierra Club’s allegations are true, allowing C4BES’s participation would have a detrimental impact on the proceeding. It questioned the actions on the part of SoCalGas.
The Sierra Club added more fuel to the fire on June 10th, when it discussed the nine groups serving on the C4BES board that had received corporate contributions from SoCalGas.
All the while, SoCalGas denied that it has lied or misled regulators, saying it was offering consumers “choice.” But as the Sierra Club pointed out, among the board members was the gas company’s George Minter. Furthermore, the amount of money in the form of dues and donations given to groups listed on the board of directors was over $242,000 in the year 2018, per the GO 77-M report the gas company was required to submit annually to the CPUC.
What is a GO-77M report? Per the CPUC website: According to General Order (GO) №77-M, electric and gas public utilities with gross annual operating revenues of $1 billion or more are required to submit compensation data annually to the CPUC. The data must cover all Executive Officers and any other employees who received a base salary of $250,000 or more per annum, as well as all other employees who received a base salary of $125,000 or more per annum.
Additionally, General Order (GO) №77-M, requires the utilities to also provide information on dues, subscriptions, and donations paid to outside organizations.
According to state filings, SoCalGas began paying the bills for C4Bes in March 2018. The not-for-profit was registered with the state nearly a year later, in January 2019.
Regarding the SoCalGas’s role in the formation of the astroturf group, Earthjustice, Sierra Club, and the Public Advocates insist this was a big deal. That by using shareholder money, utilities can advocate for rules that favor them. But they shouldn’t be allowed to use ratepayers’ money to create a group to gain an additional voice in these proceedings. And despite the assertion by SoCalGas that it wasn’t using ratepayer money, Mike Campbell of the Public Advocates Office suggested that the gas company’s claim was “not credible” based on the conflicting information the utility gave regarding the money it provided to C4BES. It asked the commission to consider sanctioning SoCalGas for violating Rule 1.1 (the ethics section of the California Code of Regulations in regards to the CPUC).
In 2018, the CPUC had concluded that the gas company used money from customers to advocate against stricter codes and standards. In its June 5, 2018 ruling, the CPUC ordered: Southern California Gas Company is prohibited from participating in statewide codes and standards advocacy activities, other than to transfer ratepayer funds to the statewide lead for codes and standards, during this business plan period.
This decision was based on information provided by the Office of Ratepayer Advocates (ORA). The ORA pointed to misconduct concerning the gas company’s conduct with respect to codes and standards advocacy activities (building codes and appliance standards). Specifically, ORA cites as evidence SoCalGas’s opposition to the US Department of Energy’s proposed new efficiency standards for residential furnaces, based on internal emails among SoCalGas managers discussing the potential for the proposed standards to raise the cost of some gas furnaces and thereby encourage fuel switching away from natural gas.
Other internal emails cited by the ORA included a discussion of a study, commissioned by SoCalGas, that “replicates” an earlier analysis conducted by the same consultant for the American Gas Association and American Public Gas Association in opposition to the DOE’s proposed furnace rule. ORA asserted these emails suggest ‘a coordinated effort by [the American Gas Association] and SoCalGas to undermine the furnace standard.’” In addition, among other acts of misconduct, the ORA included other communications with investor-owned utilities that the advocacy group felt was a bad faith engagement regarding the codes and standards.
Now, the Public Advocates Office was saying because SoCalGas violated that order, it wanted the company sanctioned for that as well. “We have evidence that they continued to work to undermine codes and standards even after the commission said you shouldn’t do that,” Campbell said. “And they kept charging those costs to ratepayers.”
C4BES filed a motion to withdraw its party status to the proceeding on August 20, 2019, saying the action was to avoid “devoting precious resources on defending against attacks that have nothing to do with the proceeding.”
In addition to setting up C4BES, gas company representatives had been traveling throughout the state making many presentations starting in June 2018. These managers urged city and county governments, local associations, and chambers of commerce to support the use of “balanced energy solutions” (meaning supporting the continued use of gas in buildings). Afterwards, the utility requested that local elected officials adopt a pre-drafted “balanced energy” resolution to oppose state policies that will favor electrification of new builds.
SoCalGas contributions to cities and chambers of commerce that were listed in a press release issued in October came to $55,000 to cities and $76,564 to chambers of commerce in 2018 per the GO-77M report released in 2019. Another Sempra company, San Diego Gas & Electric gave $4,400 to chambers of commerce for two of the listed cities. Additionally, private utility Pacific Gas & Electric donated $11,000 of the listed cities and $12,250 to chambers of commerce.
As for other organizations that have signed on to the C4BES letter to Governor Newsom, those which had received contributions from SoCalGas in 2018 (per the most recent GO 77-M report), include Faith and Community Empowerment ($10,000), San Gabriel Valley Economic Partnership California ($18,250), California Business Properties Association ($5,000), Congress of California Seniors ($15,500), Fiesta Educativa Inc ($5,000), and Pacific Asian Counseling Services ($5,000).
According to the Sierra Club’s July 5, 2019, response submitted to the decarbonization docket, the presentations used “results of a highly flawed and biased study SoCalGas commissioned from Navigant, potentially at ratepayer expense.” This same report SoCalGas had touted in a press release the summer before, with testimonials from 21 organizations, of which 15 had received a total of $213,641 from the gas company in 2018.
The Sierra Club sent a letter to the CEC on August 24, 2018 for Docket 18-IEPR-09, stating that the organization had serious concerns that the report’s inaccurate assumptions and narrow scope lead to unsound findings.
According to Earthjustice, there were many studies that have proved that there needed to be a transition from the use of gas in buildings in order to cut down on building emissions, which are responsible for a quarter of the state’s greenhouse gases. Among these studies: https://www.ethree.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/E3_Residential_Building_Electrification_in_California_April_2019.pdf by Energy & Environmental Economics, Inc., and https://www.synapse-energy.com/sites/default/files/Decarbonization-Heating-CA-Buildings-17-092-1.pdf by Synapse Energy Economics, Inc.
Yet, despite SoCalGas’s efforts to push its agenda with scare tactics and misleading information, some communities in California looked to transition to a fossil fuel-free future away from the use of natural gas. Among the cities and towns that in 2019 had passed electrification codes, including bans in some for new buildings, were Berkeley, San Jose, Healdsburg, Los Gatos, San Luis Obispo, San Mateo, Windsor, and Santa Monica. More about this later.
Some cities are joining energy collectives such as the Clean Power Alliance, which doesn’t use natural gas, biomass, coal, or nuclear.
In addition, the promotion of “renewable” gas by SoCalGas has been criticized by many environmental groups as not a viable path.
THE CPUC PUTS SOCALGAS ON THE HOT SEAT, FINALLY
One result of the Blade Energy report was to force the CPUC to look more closely at how SoCalGas ran its Aliso Canyon facility. On June 27, 2019, the CPUC opened two investigations into SoCalGas and its management (or lack thereof) of Aliso. The first one (I.19–06–014) concerned whether the safety culture of SoCalGas and its parent company Sempra Energy fostered a workplace culture that contributed to the blowout.
The second one (I.19–06–016) concerned whether SoCalGas should be sanctioned for causing the blowout to happen.
SoCalGas responded to both by asking the CPUC to exclude the root cause analysis report because the Bruno lawsuit demonstrated a conflict of interest.
In Part 3 of this series, we learned about the CPUC manager, Kenneth Bruno, who filed a lawsuit in June against SoCalGas after contracting a rare form of cancer. The suit claimed SoCalGas caused his rare form of cancer of the blood because of exposure to chemicals while visiting the Aliso Canyon site dozens of times starting on November 4, 2015, while well SS-25 was in the process of being sealed. The claim included negligence and strict liability for hazardous activities.
The law firm representing Kenneth Bruno said he wasn’t advised to wear a hazmat suit or bring a respirator to protect him from the high levels of benzene and other chemicals. He was only told by the gas company to bring boots, a hardhat, pants, and a jacket. His lawyer contended that SoCalGas “knowingly willfully exposed their employees and state employees to intolerable conditions.”
Another part of the complaint says that Bruno was responsible for hiring Blade Energy Partners to conduct the root cause analysis into the blowout, but Sempra Energy and SoCalGas were not fully cooperative in allowing the contractor full access to the tubing and casing, and attempted to pour cement into these items, which could have destroyed evidence. I.19–06–016 will necessarily evaluate and adjudicate the findings detailed in the Blade Report. In opening the proceeding, the Commission was explicit that it was accepting “the facts stated in the Blade Report as accurate, solely for the purpose of commencing [that] investigation,” and that SoCalGas would be provided “ample opportunity to contest any factual assertions in the Blade Reports.” The Blade Report itself will be subject to much dispute by the gas company, including whether its findings are accurate.
After SoCalGas sent its letter on June 13, 2019, Bruno’s lawyer in the lawsuit disputed the possibility of a conflict of interest. He said that the investigator contacted his firm after the Blade report had been sent to the CPUC in May.
SoCalGas responded to the CPUC for the sanctions investigation saying it hasn’t yet fully reviewed the Blade RCA. https://www.cpuc.ca.gov/uploadedFiles/CPUCWebsite/Content/News_Room/NewsUpdates/2019/Response%20to%20May%2017%20Letter%20re%20Blade%20Report%20-%20Final%208%2023%202019.pdf
Here’s SoCalGas’s opening statement for the safety culture investigation: https://www.socalgas.com/regulatory/documents/i-19-06-014/SoCalGas_Opening_Response%20_I19-06-014_Safety_Culture_PDF-A.pdf
One CPUC commissioner, Clifford Rechtschaffen said, “If SoCalGas had had a robust safety culture in place, there would have been a much better chance that it would have taken measures to avoid these incidents from occurring,”
In addition, Sempra responded to the probe of its safety culture in a separate filing on July 29, claiming that the investigation should recognize its organizational structure and make distinctions between the boards of directors and management teams at Sempra and SoCalGas.
The ploy on the part of SoCalGas to exclude the root cause analysis in the proceedings didn’t work. “The Aliso Canyon incident, the explosion on Line 235, and ongoing leaks at critical infrastructure call into question SoCalGas’ safety practices and priorities,” said Commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen. “This proceeding will examine all regulatory tools to assure that SoCalGas adopts a robust safety culture with safety as its highest organizational priority.” Blade’s report is at www.cpuc.ca.gov/Aliso.
As a first step in the proceeding whether the utility should be sanctioned, the CPUC ordered SoCalGas to submit information to the CPUC within 30 days to show why it should not be sanctioned for allowing the uncontrolled release of natural gas at Aliso Canyon. The proposal voted on to open the proceeding is available at http://docs.cpuc.ca.gov/PublishedDocs/Published/G000/M306/K041/306041251.PDF
The SoCalGas response was that it claimed the order was “procedurally deficient” because “it does not identify any potential violations with sufficient specificity.”
Those at the CPUC disagreed with the gas company’s response.
Commissioner Genevieve Shiroma, “It was very important to receive the Blade Report, an independent assessment of what caused the Aliso Canyon gas leak. The CPUC’s next step, which will be done through the proceeding opened today, is to determine whether SoCalGas violated any CPUC requirements for maintenance of a gas storage facility like Aliso Canyon. It is critical that CPUC requirements are followed towards protecting the public.”
THOSE HAPS WILL GET YOU EVERY TIME
In the spring of 2019, a study by a UCLA team came out that suggested that a broad range of hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) were emitted along with methane during the Aliso Canyon blowout. Also found was evidence that the well kill attempts to seal SS-25 may be responsible for emissions of particles that contain elevated levels of pollutants that are suspected to be associated with serious health conditions..
Led by Diane Garcia-Gonzales, of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, the study was published in the November 2019 issue of Environmental International. The researchers analyzed air samples and found them to have higher than average background levels of several HAPs.
The data had been collected by researchers in homes in Porter Ranch in early 2016.
Because the oil and gas industries are not required to report the chemical composition of their product to the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, it would be hard to measure what exactly is in the emissions.
Dr. Jeffrey Nordella pointed out that without knowing the full range of toxins emitted during the blowout, the researchers may have not sampled for all the biologically relevant pollutants that were present. He also pointed out that single pollutant health-based standards cannot be used to provide the risks when there’s a wide range of pollutants that are used in oil and natural gas production and storage. His third comment was that current benchmarks do not adequately address possible risks associated with chronic, lower levels of exposure to multiple air pollutants. He also stated that several pollutants that were found during the blowout such as benzene may not have a safe level of exposure. His last point was that other aspects such as economic, social, and health may affect the psychological stress caused by the blowout. Because of the lack of the comprehensive list of chemicals and the fact that it’s unknown how various combinations of these chemicals would interact on the body, it comes down to needing complete blood count data.
SPECIAL ELECTION FOR CD-12
Englander announced he was leaving his position on the city council Oct 11 2018 at the end of the year for a position at the Oak View Group in January as its new executive vice president of government affairs. This company described itself as an L.A.-based global advisory, development and investment company for the sports and live-entertainment industries and is part of Azoff Co., led by Irving Azoff.
First elected to the council in 2011 and reelected in 2015, Englander had more than two years left in his term. At times, he had a contentious relationship with some of those actively involved in the fight to shut down Aliso. So when he announced a family festival on June 11 for residents “to reconnect with their community and enjoy the quality of life,” some residents felt that given many were still getting sick in their homes, this was an inappropriate celebration. Part of the event was tied into a grand opening of a new housing development in the community, The Palisades, which caused more talk of being tone deaf. The comments floating about social media caused Englander to tell a news reporter that “haters got to hate,” when it came to the negative reaction. The next month, he came in fifth in the primary for county supervisor.
Several candidates filed to run to fill the seat for the remainder of his term. A few candidate forums were held before the election on June 4th. At a couple of the forums, the topic of Aliso Canyon’s gas storage facility came up. During a lightning round at one of these, the candidates were asked about whether they supported the closure, and all the candidates present said yes. A few mentioned qualifiers (re reliability). When asked about biomethane, a few candidates didn’t know about that issue. At another forum, candidates were given time to discuss what they felt the appropriate actions regarding Aliso should be.
On their campaign websites, some candidates didn’t mention the Aliso Canyon issue at all.
The two top finishers in the primary were Dr. Loraine Lundquist and John Lee. After the June 4th election, most of the Democratic candidates, many local Democratic groups, and the LA Times endorsed Lundquist. A few of the Republican candidates endorsed Lee. The LA Daily News had endorsed one of the other Republican candidates during the primary, but didn’t make any endorsements for the runoff election.
At the second candidates’ forum during the run off period, Aliso was brought up again. Lundquist vowed her first action in office would be to introduce a motion to shut down Aliso Canyon. She also wanted Los Angeles to lead on the clean energy economy of the future, which will bring jobs to the district, create industries in cities, and ensure a great future for children.
About Aliso, Lee said, “No one understands the situation better more than my family. We were relocated for four months.” He mentioned he was on the “citizen advisory committee” (that was the original name, but by the time the first meeting was held, it had been renamed the Porter Ranch Community Advisory Committee). He said that the problem is that the past governor (Jerry Brown) put a 10-year mandate to shut down the facility, but there wasn’t any plan to do so. He added, “This energy that we use just doesn’t magically appear if we get rid of this site. We need to shut it down but in a responsible way.” He added that he would go up to Sacramento to fight for the closure.
Lundquist replied, “I have already travelled to Sacramento three times as a member of the community, along with other members of the community to fight. We met (with Brown) to argue and that is why in fact he eventually said that he would shut it down within ten years. But ten years is not soon enough.”
She added that “This facility sits on top of an active earthquake fault, the Santa Susana Fault, which bisects each well. If there is a quake on that fault, we could get a blowout of all 114 wells. This is not a safe facility and you know what the crazy thing is, we don’t actually need it.” She pointed out that taxpayers were paying $40 billion a year to keep it open. She said we have the pipeline capacity to transport the gas as Arizona and Nevada does, without having to store it. “It is an abomination and needs to shut down.”
Another topic concerned the plan to move Los Angeles toward a net zero sustainable goal by 2030. Lundquist said yes, we should be moving to clean energy. “It is absolutely imperative for our children’s future to make sure we stop burning fossil fuels that are impacting their future.” She pointed out that last year, there were 49 days considered unsafe in the Valley. “We used to be improving for many years, but now the problem is worse due to climate change. It’s actually cheaper to invest in clean energy than it is to keep we’re what we are doing now.” She also pointed out that it was good that Los Angeles had dropped the plan to repower coastal gas plants, and instead spend the money on renewable clean energy. Sinking $2.2-billion into a plan that will soon be obsolete doesn’t make sense for the future, she explained.
“When I was on the DWP advisory committee, that’s the way to keep rates down when we actually make that shift to clean energy faster.”
Lee said that the city has made changes, but it shouldn’t be done at the cost of the economy or good paying jobs. “These Elitists like to come up with a lot of these plans, but they don’t take into the concern of how the working person is going to pay for these changes.”
He claimed that the report Lundquist referred had incorrect info about the savings. He said “one of my volunteers talked to the ratepayer advocate who was telling us that information has not come out yet. The report she is referring to was done by Food & Water Watch that doesn’t take into everything into account.”
Lee then claimed that Lundquist received $80,000 from a hedge fund manager and another contribution from Sempa. Even after she refuted this, Lee repeated the charge.
In reality, he had misstated the donation she’d received from Aaron Sosnick as it was only a $800 contribution, the maximum allowable amount for an individual campaign contribution, which is “a payment that is made to a candidate or committee, or that is made at the behest of a candidate or committee.”
The other type of donation is called an “independent expenditure.” This type is given directly to organizations, often PACs, to produce mailers and other communications (such as calling voters), in support or against a candidate or issue. There are specific regulations involved, including the forms to be filled out along with a sample of the mailer. Each mailer or commercial is required to include a disclaimer with the group(s)’s name. The candidate doesn’t have a say in whether such a contribution can be accepted. During this campaign, independent expenditures were made on behalf of both Lee and Lundquist.
Every candidate (and campaign treasurer) running for a city office is required to undergo training by the city Ethics Commission, that explained the different forms of campaign funding.
On July 14th, the Los Angeles Times ran an article that mentioned that the union that represents workers at the Department of Water and Power, the IBEW Local 18, had been backing Lee. There was a mention that this group, The Working Californians Research Fund political action committee, had received “financial support from the fossil fuel industry.” The article didn’t explain that this more than $57,000 contribution in support of Lee fell into the independent expenditure category, and not a direct donation to Lee’s campaign.
There were other influencers contributing to the independent expenditures in support of Lee. Among those donors are the Los Angeles County Business Federation (also known as Biz Fed) and the LA Area Chamber of Commerce, two groups which have received substantial donations from SoCalGas over the years, and in turn had publicly championed the reopening of Aliso Canyon, the gas storage facility operated by the gas company, and the site of the largest gas blowout in US history.
At the Armenian forum, the Aliso Canyon disaster was brought up again. Regarding the 2015 gas blowout, Lundquist said she had been working with other residents in favor of closing it down from the beginning. She was part of some residents’ contingents that went to Sacramento on behalf of the affected area. Even before the blowout, she helped organize a fight to stop local fracking. She repeated that one of her first motions she will introduce as a council person would be a resolution to get the state to shut down the facility. She brought up that keeping the storage site open costs the ratepayers $40 million a year. Lee said that this district has taken action, but agreed that Aliso needs to be shut down.
CONSENT DECREE: What has been done and what hasn’t
In August 2018, the state, county, and city entered into a consent decree with SoCalGas for a total of $119.5. Here is a link to my article at that time: https://knock-la.com/public-officials-announce-119-5-million-settlement-against-socalgas-over-aliso-canyon-violations-c4ad2247eb2b
The most controversial of the items still remained to be the dairy digesters project which was being handled by California BioEnergy. The dairies that are part of this project were located an “as the crow flies distance” from Porter Ranch between 72 and 148 miles.
In late July 2019, SoCalGas issued a press release heralding the completion of a dairy facility in the Central Valley that was expected to become the largest dairy biogas operation in the US this year. The biomethane that will be produced there will be injected into the SoCalGas pipelines. The gas company gave the company a $5 million incentive check to support the development of such projects.
A major problem with this kind of program was that in reality, biomethane is not a clean source of fuel. Here’s a factsheet that explained the major problems involved with the collection, conversion and use of biogas: https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/insight/dirty-biogas-has-no-place-united-states-clean-energy-future
Among the other items being funded by this agreement were an internal safety committee and a safety ombudsman to be hired by SoCalGas. This independent ombudsman was tasked with attending the safety committee meetings, examining its reports, attending town halls in the community at least once a year, and finally preparing an annual written report. According to the website, he was to participate in quarterly meetings with the Aliso Canyon Well and Storage Operations Safety Committee (WSOC).
The ombudsman Richard Gentges, set up a session on July 24th to explain his new position to the community to explain his new position. According to the information he sent out in advance, he “is to serve as a non-exclusive repository for safety-related concerns associated with the Aliso Canyon Facility.” The aspects that he will address seemed to be more concerning infrastructure. Members of the public and SoCalGas employees are able to submit concerns to him via a website: https://safetyombudsman.com/home/overview/
The South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) has been working on one aspect of the consent decree: installation of air filtration systems in LA city and county schools located in environmental justice communities. According to the timeline in the proposal, selection of these schools should have been made by October 2019.
A more valuable tool for the community would be the BTEX monitors to measure benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. But to date, more than ten months after the consent decree was signed, there had not been any indication that such a monitoring system was about to be installed. In addition, the residents in the North West San Fernando Valley haven’t been consulted, as detailed in the settlement.
An email was sent by this writer on October 21, 2019, to the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), California Air Resources Board (CARB), and the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), as they were mentioned as agencies that may be selected to implement the project. Jarrod DeGonia, the SFV deputy for supervisor Kathryn Barger, as well as state senator Henry Stern and Assembly member Christy Smith, were also included as addressees.
The only responses initially received were from CARB. Jorn Herner replied that he forwarded the email to the agency’s Public Information Officer David Clegern, who responded with “Your questions are best addressed to SCAQMD, as they are the local air quality authorities and more of a presence in that area. CARB’s primary role involves environmental mitigation, and I’m checking with staff to see if there’s anything new to report there.”
On November 12th, DeGonia was sent another email, and he finally responded with “Our office with County Counsel are in discussions with the Attorney General’s Office and the City Attorney’s office relating to the $3 million for air monitoring. There are some very specific stipulations associated with this funding and hope to have an update for you later in the month.” He never responded to a follow up email that asked why this specific item was still up in the air while all the other sections of the consent decree seemed to be already funded.
Considering that this item was negotiated to be included in the settlement back in August 2018, and the settlement signed off on in February 2019, it would seem that the County had sufficient time to iron out any possible wrinkles. So either it was a much more complicated issue than originally thought or the ball had been dropped with no one was overseeing the project. Even the Exide cleanup received consideration by the Board of Supervisors in April 2019. So why was this one problematic?
A HISTORY OF THE ALISO CANYON HEALTH STUDY
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, to be conducted by a third party, as part of its abatement order issued on January 23, 2016. The order stipulated that the gas company give a written commitment for funding this study on the potential impacts of exposure to the constituents of the gas.
During the time in which SoCalGas was supposedly coming up with a plan to fund a health study, the area’s assembly member at the time, Scott Wilk, introduced a bill in the state legislature to fund a health study. AB-1903 would authorize OEHHA to study the long-term health impacts of the natural gas leak at the Aliso Canyon facility if funding is available.
The bill’s analysis pointed out that Governor Brown’s January 6, 2016, emergency proclamation detailed the administration’s efforts to help stop the leak and directed further action to protect public health and safety, ensure accountability, and strengthen oversight of gas storage facilities. Among other things, the proclamation specifically directed OEHHA to convene an independent panel of scientific and medical experts to review public health concerns stemming from the gas leak and evaluate whether additional measures were needed to protect public health beyond those already put in place.
It further pointed out that during and after the gas leak, OEHHA evaluated the health hazards and risks posed by the gas leak. Its conclusion was that the available air sample data did not indicate an acute health hazard, and current measured exposures to benzene were below the level of concern for chronic health effects. (one thing to note is that the data the agency analyzed was obtained from the SoCalGas website)
The analysis went on to detail what was in the 2016–17 Budget including $13.8 million to implement emergency proclamation, enhance efforts to improve public safety statewide, and strengthen oversight of gas storage facilities.
Among the agencies to receive funding was the CEC ($1.7 million from the Public Interest Research, Development, and Demonstration Fund to monitor, model, and analyze the interaction of electricity and natural gas systems for reliability; The Department of Conservation (DOC) ($4.2 million from the Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources Fund to support increased regulatory activities); CARB ($2.3 million also from the Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources Fund to provide air quality monitoring near oil and gas operations); OEHHA ($350,000 from the Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources Fund to support CARB’s air quality monitoring); and the CPUC ($1.5 million from the Public Utilities Commission Utilities Reimbursement Account for increased workload related to regulating natural gas facilities and $1.7 million to create the Division of Safety Advocates).
AB-1903 would have:
1) Required the CPUC to authorize OEHHA to study the long-term health impacts of the Aliso Canyon, if sufficient funds are available for the study.
2) Required the study to evaluate the health impacts on individuals who resided within a 12-mile radius of the Aliso Canyon when the leak occurred and to evaluate the impact of exposure to chemicals, such as methane, benzene, and mercaptan, had on residents.
3) Required the CPUC to publish and provide a copy of the report to the relevant policy committees in the legislature.
4) Required the CPUC to order SoCalGas to pay for the study.
5) Allowed the CPUC to include the costs of the study in any penalties assessed on SoCal Gas.
6) Sunset the provisions of the bill on January 1, 2029.
But as of November 30, 2016, this bill was permanently shelved.
As for the LA County Dept. of Public Health (DPH), its initial actions consisted of issuing fact sheets that said residents’ symptoms were due to the odorants that were added to the gas, and that there won’t be a risk of long-term health effects from the exposure. But because the residents were vocal about their symptoms, the county went to court to force SoCalGas to provide relocation to residents in Porter Ranch requesting the help to get out of the area.
Then two communications were sent to local doctors in early 2016, directing them not to perform any toxicology tests on patients. In late March, DPH staffers went door to door in Porter Ranch asking about symptoms. At a local meeting of the Porter Ranch Community Advisory Committee, members informed DPH that many of the most sick were still out of their homes at the time of that Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response” (CASPER) assessment (note that many of the DPH staffers who conducted the CASPER study became ill while in the area).
From the beginning of the disaster, SoCalGas had glommed on to any air sampling report or even the words from the DPH about health effects in order to claim there were no risks to residents living near the gas facility. Here’s one media statement the utility had issued on February 24, 2016, that quotes Dr. Jeffery Gunzenhauser in an LA Times article on February 18, 2016 as saying ‘My conclusion is that all of the levels that we’ve looked at are below health levels of concern. We do not anticipate there will be any long-term health effects in the community resulting from this.’ (around that time, the DPH issued a report titled “Public Health and Safety Risks of Oil and Gas Facilities in Los Angeles County,” which referred to a comprehensive health risk assessment conducted by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and added a footnote: “For cancer causing substances, there are no safe levels of exposure.”)
If you recall from part one of this series (https://knock-la.com/incompetent-corrupt-or-impotent-how-public-agencies-mishandled-the-aliso-canyon-disaster-1464d008a8dc), SoCalGas hired a doctor/lawyer Mary McDaniel to give misleading information to residents, who were quite understandably worried about chemical exposure from the blown out well. One of her past assignments was with another fossil fuel-related company, Unocal, where she worked from 1989 to 1997. When Huntington Beach residents met with Unocal representatives (including McDaniel) regarding symptoms they felt were related to the crude-oil processing plant, she told them, “We don’t think there is a health problem. If we did, the facility wouldn’t be open.”
In the meantime, In September 2016 at the County Board of Supervisors meeting, Supervisors Michael Antonovich, and Sheila Kuehl, asked the DPH to partner with AQMD to devise 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 Environmental Protection Agency, AQMD, and academic researchers from USC and UC Irvine. The scope that was discussed would cost around $35 to 40 million, according to DPH.
Around that time the AQMD filed a suit against SoCalGas for refusing to honor the January 2016 abatement order.
This lawsuit was resolved on February 8, 2017, but with the two parties (the AQMD governing board and SoCalGas) agreeing that the utility will be on the hook for only $1 million 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.”
All along the residents had been attending meetings held by the AQMD hearing board in 2016, where they spent hours talking about their health issues. But it was the governing board that decided the fate of the study for less than five percent of the health panel’s recommendation.
A few days later, the assembly member who succeeded Wilk, Dante Acosta put in a request to the state budget committee to increase funding for the health study. He asked for the reallocation of $2 million in already existing funds from the Air Pollution Control Fund. But still, a total of $3 million would not be sufficient, as far as those living near Aliso were concerned. In the end, that committee turned down the request.
The area’s council person Mitchell Englander demanded that $5.65 million, the entire amount received by the AQMD in the settlement, be used for the health study, including the amount that would go into the AQMD general fund. He introduced a resolution asking for a “large portion” to go to “community amelioration” but it also included funding a renewable natural gas production project. This motion wasn’t passed immediately. It was referred to the Rules, Elections, Intergovernmental Relations, and Neighborhoods Committee on February 28th, and then four months later re-referred to the same committee. This committee finally approved it on April 11, 2018 with the council passing it and the mayor signing off on April 16, 2018.
Given that community leaders and elected officials felt the amount allocated by the agreement was so low, it called into question the judgement of the AQMD governing board, without whose approval, this settlement wouldn’t have happened, to agree to this amount. Obviously the board didn’t consider the panel that tackled this subject just a few months before, and apparently didn’t get input from the board of supervisors.
In a February 2017 article, DPH’s Angelo Bellomo agreed with local physician Jeffrey Nordella about the need for further investigation into the abnormal symptoms local residents had been feeling ever since the blowout and even after well SS-25 was sealed. But he added that his department wouldn’t be able to conduct a long-term health study on its own.
DPH toxicologist Dr. Cyrus Rangan agreed at a town hall later that month that there was a need for a proper health study, but the AQMD courtroom agreement would pay for a “$1 million non-health study.”
A communication written by DPH stated that “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?).”
But in the months following the initial symptoms making residents ill, there was never a real effort to start the process of directly examining the residents while waiting for a health study to begin, aside from the efforts of Dr. Jeffrey Nordella, who was acting independently of agencies and lawmakers. After many of his patients in his urgent care facility were presenting with unusual symptoms following the onset of the blowout, he decided to give complete blood counts, chest x-rays, and other diagnostic tests.
In part one of my series, I gave the background behind several environmental disasters that involved missteps and corruption at public agencies. Last month, I watched the movie “Dark Waters” that could have been included. This movie showed what happened when a lawyer helped residents dealing with poisoning by a DuPont chemical in Parkersburg, West Virginia. In a case that started in 1998, this was a true story about how chemical contamination affects the health of everyone.
PFOA, also known as C8, had been used in certain functions, including producing nonstick cookware for decades. In the early 80s, Dupont bought land from a cattle rancher in the early 80s, and turned it into the Dry Run Landfill, to be used to hold waste from its factory Washington Works that was located near Parkersburg.
As a result of a class action suit filed by 70,000 residents, it was decided that a study would be conducted to see if there was a “probable link” between the chemical and diseases affected the residents and workers. Nearly all of the plaintiffs agreed to get their blood tested. The team of epidemiologists designed 12 studies to determine how much of the chemical each person had ingested. After seven years, the results of the C8 Science Panel were reported in 2012 that showed that there was a probable link between PFOA and kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia and ulcerative colitis. Plaintiffs from the class action suit who became ill from these ailments became entitled to file individual liability lawsuits against DuPont.
Given that this study came out a few years before the blowout began, one has to wonder why didn’t DPH request the testing of residents for a baseline complete blood count. The results of the West Virginia study could have been used to obtain funding so that residents living near Aliso Canyon could be properly monitored.
After Dr. Nordella released results from a community-driven toxicology study on October 14, 2017, some elected officials including Congress member Brad Sherman and state senator Henry Stern asked for a long term health study to be conducted. Council person Mitchell Englander went a different way and asked for an official update on the AQMD study, but his motion wasn’t voted on and passed until February 2018, with the date for the update a year later at a city health commission meeting.
On December 14, 2017, The AQMD held a Health Study Scoping Community Hearing in Porter Ranch 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 effects from the blowout. The residents also registered their feelings that the DPH could not be trusted to do a decent job on the study, and rejected the draft, one that centered on air sampling and mercaptans, that the AQMD had presented. After several hours of public comments, the list numbered almost 150 suggestions and criticisms and 45 questions.
The AQMD established a Health Study Technical Advisory Group (HSTAG), which included scientists from local, state and federal agencies, faculty from universities, and two community members selected by the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council (PRNC). The HSTAG was tasked with helping to draft the scope of the AQMD study, including integrating community comments to the draft Request for Proposals (RFP). The idea was that results from this study with the development of other scientific studies would answer any key questions that remain after AQMD’s study was completed.
The HSTAG panel met just once in April 2018.
Feeling the frustration at the path the panel wanted to take, Nordella (one of the PRNC reps), Nordella initiated his Aliso Canyon Medical Surveillance Study in July 2018. The basics behind this study is discussed in this article: https://knock-la.com/bad-news-about-elevated-benzene-levels-for-residents-near-aliso-canyon-19ad1905cdce and on his website: https://www.alisocanyonmss.com/#StudyAndParticipate.