Incompetent, Corrupt, or Impotent: How Public Agencies Mishandled The San Fernando Valley Disaster At Aliso Canyon: Part Five
The fifth part in our ongoing series.
Recap of Part Four: SoCalGas creates a fake group to help it lobby against decarbonization, the CPUC opens investigations concerning the Aliso blowout, candidates run for the open CD-12 seat, residents wait for useful monitors and a long-term health study.
IS THIS THE HEALTH STUDY RESIDENTS BEEN WAITING FOR?
On August 8th, the consent decree between SoCalGas and the government (state, county, and city) was announced. Among the items (besides the ones mentioned earlier) included in the $119.5 million consent decree was the much requested long term health study for residents affected by the blowout. The allotted amount will be $25 million, which was less than the $35 million determined by a panel of health experts in 2016 to be a minimum needed to start such a study, but certainly more than the amount in the AQMD-SoCalGas agreement. This study was to be administered by the DPH (the county department of Public Health), the same agency that mislead the public, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), and the media about what was causing the residents’ symptoms. The decree included the formation of a Scientific Oversight Committee (SOC), which will determine the scope of the study.
In addition, the DPH also decided to create a Community Advisory Group (CAG) that will provide community input into the selection of members of the SOC.
As for the AQMD (the South Coast Air Quality Management District) study, the request for proposals was presented to the AQMD administrative committee on October 10, 2018 and to the governing board on November 2nd for final approval. The projected projects to be bidded out were for conducting data integration and exposure modeling.
An update for the AQMD health study landed on the agenda of the City of Los Angeles Health Commission meeting in February 2019. Apparently this was the result of Councilman Englander’s motion a year before. A group of residents and Dr. Nordella attended the meeting, but no one connected to the study nor anyone from the DPH were present. There wasn’t even any information delivered to the commissioners. Whether this was a snafu on the part of Public Health or on the council office, wasn’t made clear. And this was just a month after Englander had vacated his position on the city council to accept a lobbying job. The Commission members themselves were clueless as to what the study was or if it had been completed or even begun. One member even had asked the residents if they had gone to the city’s petroleum czar to discuss Aliso.
The consent decree was signed off on February 25, 2019, by the same judge who will oversee the mass tort brought against SoCalGas.
In mid-March, the DPH held two orientation sessions for the public about the health study that was funded by the consent decree. It wasn’t well attended on either date with possibly under forty people showing up. Some community leaders didn’t feel there was much of an attempt to publicize these sessions. On top of that, there wasn’t much specific information about what was being planned. Attendees were asked for comments or suggestions, and could sign up for a list of those interested in becoming members of the CAG.
The health study team decided that the CAG would consist of seven representatives from the Neighborhood Councils nearest to Aliso. The Porter Ranch NC would have two members, and the remaining members would be one each from the NCs (neighborhood councils) in Chatsworth, Granada Hills North, Granada Hills South, Northridge West and Northridge East. Then those seven would select up to 13 at-large members.
But when DPH officials showed up at Neighborhood Council meetings in April to ask for the organizations to select CAG members, they ran into a bureaucratic snag. They didn’t realize that NCs required advanced notice for votes to be scheduled on the agenda. The plan to have the first CAG meeting in May or June vaporized.
At the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council meeting, stakeholders insisted that CAG members were not to have any association, currently or in the past, with SoCalGas.
The online application site for the CAG became available on May 22nd. The email sent to those who had expressed an interest at the orientation explained there will be “up to 13 at-large representatives, who will self-nominate and then be selected by the representatives from the local Neighborhood Councils. While anyone can nominate to be an at-large representative, they must demonstrate community connection.” In June, applicants received an email that explained, “The CAG will play an important role in advising and guiding the development of the Health Research Study, and in communicating with the local community. Your application will be reviewed by representatives from local Neighborhood Councils, who will then select up to 13 At-Large Representatives. Together, representatives from local Neighborhood Councils and the selected At-Large Representatives will make up the CAG.”
The NC reps met in July to look over the applications, but unfortunately, they were given heavily redacted info, including the absence of applicants’ names. When the reps balked (as they wanted to make sure they were selecting those who have been active in the community), it was decided that they would interview the applicants in person.
Then Public Health decided to take over the selection process to get the composition of the committee to their liking (the word “transparency” was used). Some of the applicants were given a phone interview. Emails to those accepted to the CAG were sent on July 29.
The first three official meetings of the group so far were held on August 29, September 20, and October 30. There had also been several conference calls as well as two in-person meetings in addition to the official ones. The fourth meeting will be in January 2020.
In the next couple of weeks, the independent members of the SOC will be announced. On the SOC will be representatives from the following agencies as listed in the consent decree: the California Department of Public Health, OEHHA (the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment), AQMD, the California EPA (the Environmental Protection Agency), the US EPA, CARB (the California Air Resources Board), and the County Dept. of Public Health. Joining them will be at least eight independent members to ensure that non-agency members are in the majority.
ELECTED OFFICIALS GET INVOLVED
The DPH was among the topics brought up when State Senator Henry Stern and Assembly Member Christy Smith held a Joint Oversight Hearing with the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee and the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management on the Aliso Canyon disaster at the Porter Ranch Community School on August 6, 2019.
Experts were brought together to discuss some of the issues produced by the disaster such as the root cause analysis, well safety, earthquake risk, and how the DPH toxicologist prevented testing of residents.
After members of the public spoke about a mistrust of public agencies, lack of a safety culture at SoCalGas, and the gas company’s negligence, the lead of the root cause analysis (RCA) by Blade Energy Partner gave an overview of the findings. Also presenting information and answering questions asked by Senator Stern were Wade Crowfoot of the California Resources Agency, and Jason Marshall, the deputy director of the Cal Dept of Conservation.
The second panel concerned the response to the RCA, with Briana Mordick of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Professor of Geology Matthew D’Alessio of Cal State Northridge. Senator Stern noted that Bret Lane, the current CEO of SoCalGas had been asked to participate, but didn’t show up.
Mordick, senior scientist at the NRDC, called Aliso, “an environmentally and public health disaster.”
Dr. D’Alessio gave a presentation on the draft seismic analysis that SoCalGas was ordered to commission, pointing out the odds of the severe damage that could occur if a major earthquake hits.
The final panel concerned emergency response. The two panelists were Dr. Cyrus Rangan of the DPH, and Fire Chief John Todd, of the LA County Fire Dept. Prevention Services Bureau.
Assembly member Christy Smith asked Dr. Rangan to give some background into the role of the Public Health Dept during and after the disaster. Rangan said that his department had “always took a stand that the facility shouldn’t have reopened” without the completion of the root cause analysis and seismic analysis. Assembly member Smith grilled the toxicologist about his recommendations against residents getting tested, and then said, “I understand based on data that was publicly available, the Public Health department took way too few actions that were woefully insufficient.”
Chief John Todd discussed emergency response and prevention. He mentioned that the LA County and City fire departments did not think Aliso Canyon should be reopened. He also mentioned the risk management plan they have been requesting of the gas company.
Link to my article about the hearing: https://medium.com/@pattyglueck/valley-residents-address-state-lawmakers-on-the-aliso-gas-storage-facility-9d3aa81362
During the late summer and early fall, some relevant bills were passed and signed by the governor. One, authored by Senator Stern, was SB-463 Natural gas storage wells: well stimulation treatments: chemical composition: leaks: regulation. It was meant to improve the reporting to the Division of Oil,Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) of the chemical composition of leaks from gas storage well. A big problem that still remained was whether SoCalGas can hide behind any federal laws that protect its ability to claim this information as “proprietary.”
Another bill that was signed was AB 1057 by Assembly member Monique Limόn, which renamed DOGGR the Geologic Energy Management Division. It also specifies that its mission included protecting public health and safety and environmental quality, including the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
This change came just a few months after the July firing by the governor’s office of Ken Harris, who had headed DOGGR since 2015. This move was precipitated by a damning report released earlier that day by Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance. This report released data that of the 2,365 well permits issued in 2019 to that date, almost 50 percent benefited oil companies in which eight DOGGR officials owned stock, and that permits for hydraulic fracturing were being granted at twice the rate compared to 2018.
A local development concerning energy came in September when the DWP Board of Commission unanimously voted to approve power purchase agreements for the Eland Solar and Storage Center, the largest solar and battery energy storage system in the United States. Part of the mayor’s actions for a Green New Deal that will provide for many jobs in Southern California as well as meeting clean energy goals, the agreements were subject to City Council approval. That unanimous approval by the council came on November 6th.
This center, to be located in Kern County, will include two large-scale solar facilities that will capture and store up to 1,200 megawatt-hours of energy that can be used to reduce the need for the use of natural gas at night or on cloudy days. It will begin commercial operation no later than December 31, 2023. The contract will cost less than $5 per year for each DWP customer.
DR. NORDELLA’S QUEST TO HELP THE COMMUNITY
Even before the CAG meetings took place, members of the community were invited to meet with Dr. Jeffrey Nordella at coffees held in July. He answered general questions as well as have forms available for residents to send to Quest Diagnostics, requesting blood results for the past ten years to be sent in to a HIPAA compliant email for use in the Aliso Canyon Medical Surveillance Study.
On November 2nd, Dr. Nordella presented his report at the Aliso Canyon Health Effects town hall before more than 200 residents. Here’s a link to my article about the event: https://medium.com/@pattyglueck/dont-look-don-t-find-don-t-tell-then-cover-up-9757fc7ffcc
Here is the report that was presented at the town hall: https://bit.ly/32gy2US
Here are videos of the town hall: part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WWqQV0uLpas
Often mentioned among residents, especially at hearings, was the fear that the area has been developing as a cancer zone. At the Castlebay Elementary School, just a mile away from the SoCalGas gate, several teachers had been diagnosed with cancer, and some had passed away. One teacher passed from pancreatic cancer in 2009 after teaching at the school for 13 years. Another teacher also died from pancreatic cancer. One teacher, who taught at the school for 27 years, passed away in 2017 from bladder cancer that metastasized to her bones. Still another teacher died three months later from multiple myeloma. A special ed aide died of leukemia this July. Two teachers are currently fighting breast cancer.
Some of these teachers not only worked at the school, but lived in the Porter Ranch area.
There had been many more losses in the community from forms of cancer such as multiple myeloma, kidney cancer, lymphoma, and brain cancer. These are cancers that are often caused by exposure to chemical toxins according to The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/emes/public/docs/Chemicals,%20Cancer,%20and%20You%20FS.pdf
“Because many cancers are common diseases, they occur quite often in communities. We expect to find several cases of cancer in any given neighborhood or workplace. Because most cancers are tracked in national databases, we have a good idea of how many cases to expect in a certain area over a certain amount of time. However, multiple cases of cancer in a neighborhood can cause a great deal of concern to residents. People may suspect there is a cancer cluster in their community if several people have cancer. They may also suspect something in the environment is the cause.”
“Cancer clusters are rare, especially those that are linked to an environmental exposure. When a group of cancers is linked to an environmental exposure, it is usually because of the conditions below: •Many more cases than expected of one specific type of cancer or related cancers have been found. •The cancer is found in an age group in which it is not usually found. •The type of cancer is rare. •Scientific evidence supports the link between the chemical in question and cancer. Identifying just how much of a cancer-causing substance a community has been exposed to is challenging. For example, many hazardous waste sites contain more than one chemical, which makes relating health outcomes to a single chemical exposure difficult.”
Cancer clusters may be considered rare, but one has to wonder about the increasingly number of cases being diagnosed in a ten mile area in a relatively short amount of time. Especially as an expert witness in the mass tort admitted to finding high levels of benzene back in 2003.
Children who live in this area were not immune to developing these forms of cancer. Less than a year after the onset of the blowout, one girl developed acute myeloid leukemia, which is rare in minors. A teen became ill from aplastic anemia, and her family moved out of state for her treatments, and to keep her siblings from getting more exposure to the toxins being emitted by Aliso wells. According to the ATSDR, “Severe damage to the bone marrow involving cellular aplasia is known as aplastic anemia and can occur with prolonged exposure to benzene.” The National Center for Biotechnology Information website has several articles that discuss the part benzene exposure plays in the development of both diseases.
ALISO IN THE COURTROOM
One development regarding Aliso this summer happened in the courtroom. SoCalGas was trying to keep some documents from being used in the mass tort case by claiming these were privileged communications.
The SoCalGas lawyers claimed the documents were the product of privileged attorney-client communications. But the judge felt that case hadn’t been made for all but a few of the documents in question. One of the utility’s lawyers claimed that the company AECOM had provided technical information for the Aliso Canyon Turbine Replacement Project as far back as 2009. The decision to disallow this consideration of privilege was based on one important element, that these documents were authored by the consulting company at the request of a SoCalGas lawyer for a legal review.
On August 15, 2019, Judge Carolyn Kuhl ruled that more than 165 documents and communications between SoCalGas and AECOM must be released. According to the plaintiff’s lawyer, these documents would show that SoCalGas management knew the emissions from the blowout were toxic. Only six documents were excluded from the motion.
In addition, the judge also informed SoCalGas that the utility and the defense lawyers will have to pay the plaintiffs $6,500 in sanctions for delaying the process.
Besides the mass tort, residents have been concerned with another type of case: restitution resulting from the criminal case against SoCalGas that was decided in September 2016.
This article explained Marsy’s Law and why its importance for those affected by the blowout in the northwest San Fernando Valley residents: https://medium.com/@pattyglueck/an-impending-court-decision-could-mean-an-illegal-loss-of-rights-for-future-crime-victims-3e017c03c251
On May 23, 2019, more than 150 residents packed a courtroom to hear the proceedings in the 2nd District Court of Appeals regarding restitution. The argument was that SoCalGas failed to immediately inform the residents that they were being exposed to chemicals during the blowout. And that the County locked out the residents from being able to collect restitution from the criminal charge that the utility pled no contest to, two and a half years before.
A little over six weeks later, the panel ruled that residents can seek restitution, but only on the gas company’s three-day delay in reporting the leak to agencies. This was the one count that wasn’t dismissed during the agreement made between the county and the utility.
The next hearing was on October 4th in Santa Clarita. The new judge introduced herself and scheduled the next hearing, giving the attorneys for both sides time to prepare. As with the previous hearing,residents once again wore red, including “victim” ribbons, to show the judge and attorneys their interest in getting justice.
The parties returned to the same courthouse on November 14th.
A press release in December brought up a new strategy to get the restitution case broadened beyond the issue of the three day delay in notifying area residents about the leak. In the brief filed by the Parris Law Firm, a case was laid out that SoCalGas knowingly withheld information regarding toxic and cancer-causing chemicals that would have affected residents in the three day period that started with the onset of the blowout.
Among the chemicals not listed in the notice to the Office of Emergency Services were acrolein, radon, polychlorinated biphenyls, uranium, and benzene.
During depositions taken for the civil mass tort, one executive testified that SoCalGas announced the leaking in October 2015 only after news reports of people getting sick began airing.
The brief explained that if residents had received proper notice about the hazardous release of chemicals, they could have taken steps to minimize the damage, including sealing off homes and cars, turning off HVAC systems, wearing air masks, and leaving the area.
Even after admitting there was a problem with one of its wells, SoCalGas claimed that the emissions were harmless. The utility sent out a letter to residents with misleading information, including the claim that “scientists agree natural gas is not toxic and that its odorant is harmless at the minute levels at which it is added to natural gas.” The company further gave wrong information to LA County Fire when it said “there is no threat to public safety . . . There is no cause for evacuations.”
Much of the damning testimony came from SoCalGas employees. Storage manager Glenn LaFevers explained that chemicals are added to pipelines to prevent the formation of bacteria. He added that SoCalGas disposed of toxic waste by injecting it back into the field after the gas is filtered for distribution.
Safety officer Sonia Rodriquez testified that the safety data sheets provided to Cal OSHA included natural gas condensates that are highly toxic due to toluene and other chemicals.
SoCalGas had designated Vice-President of Customer Services, Gillian Wright, as the person most qualified to testify about health impacts from the blowout. But Wright had no understanding of the actual test data from Aliso Canyon showing high levels of known cancer causing substances. Nor could she rightly testify about basic information regarding the health impacts.
One aspect mentioned was that SoCalGas failed to conduct air testing until eight days after the disaster began, when the concentrations were not as high in comparison to the first few days of release. Paul Smith, who was in charge of the emergency services group, admitted they didn’t test the gas even after residents were calling in and complaining about the odors.
In addition, the gas company knew the federal government had previously determined natural gas contained 353 toxic chemicals that cause adverse health effects.
The presence of uranium at concentrations above the maximum contaminant levels set by the EPA near well SS-25 was verified by a report prepared by Geosyntec. The report was utilized by Blade Energy while working on the root cause analysis.
One thing to note is that there seemed to be several connections between SoCalGas and the consulting firm Geosyntec, including at least one employee who went to work at SoCalGas after being employed at Geosyntec (Matthew Barela, Environmental Specialist), and officers in the same organizations, such as Sustain OC.
A WILD FIRE THREATENS THE SOCALGAS SITE
Over the years, those who live in Porter Ranch have seen their share of fires. A few have been on the site of the Aliso Canyon facility. The first occurred in 1968 before the oil wells were repurposed to hold gas. In 1975, a fire that lasted ten days tested the talents of the legendary “Red” Adair. Five years after the Val Verde-Simi fire skirted the community, a downed powerline started the 2008 Sesnon Fire that destroyed 15 homes in Porter Ranch and was considered responsible for a death on the 118 freeway.
There were also several fires on the SoCalGas property after the 2015 blowout, including ones in June 2016, May 2017, and October 2016.
Around 9 pm on October 10, 2019, a wild fire started in Sylmar and within a couple of hours jumped the I-5 freeway, reaching Granada Hills and headed toward Porter Ranch. Immediately, residents thought of the Aliso gas storage facility. Will this be the time that we will find out what happens when flames hit the storage wells?
Many LA city and county fire engines were dispatched to protect the facility. Of course, while the firefighters were standing guard over the property, some homes did burn in Porter Ranch, causing many to wonder if, had those resources were dispatched to neighborhoods, more houses could have been saved.
In the early morning, some residents, who still had Internet access, checked the methane monitors that the utility operates and saw that three of the monitors registered above “normal” readings, with monitor 7 showing a maximum of 64.3ppm at 2:20 am, and monitor 6, a reading of 35.5ppm an hour later (the “normal” level is considered 2.0ppm). SoCalGas issued a notice that “At this time it appears the elevated readings were caused by heat and smoke from the Saddleridge fire and NOT a natural gas leak.” But many residents mentioned on Facebook that they do not believe that statement, with some pointing out that if heat was the cause, the high readings would be high while the fire was nearby. It was known that the workers had been evacuated as the flames approached the area and many thought they left without turning off the monitors.
Here’s my article about the Saddleridge fire: https://knock-la.com/as-the-north-sfv-burns-worries-about-the-aliso-canyon-gas-storage-facility-ignites-ec12a3b38027
Just a few days after the gas storage site was threatened by the Saddleridge fire, it was discovered that flames were spotted coming up from dirt on a 4-by-4-foot area on the facility. Several agencies include the LA County Fire Health Hazardous Material Division, the Dept. of Public Health, AQMD, the CPUC, and DOGGR, investigated the fire. Samples were taken by SoCalGas, Geosynthic, a company that has worked with SoCalGas collecting air samples in the Porter Ranch area in early 2016, and the AQMD over the course of a few days from the location of the flames, down the hill from that location, at the Porter Ridge Park, and by some of the wells.
A report finally was issued two months later on December 18th, which concluded, “Results are reviewed by the above multi-agency coordination group and to date indicate that the low-level emissions are being detected only at the area where the flame was extinguished. The emissions are not reaching other the nearby community.” It also said, “The source of the gas emission continues to be investigated and no specific source has been ruled out (biogenic gas, thermogenic gas, injected gas).”
The agencies continued to monitor emissions, according to the LA County Fire Hazmat Division.
DOGGR had sent a letter to SoCalGas requesting further data. The agency also said it had been onsite recording emissions with the FLIR camera, witnessing SCG’s testing and work procedures and liaising with the agency group and SCG. In addition, DOGGR reviewed SCG’s initial plans/test data and requested additional safety, testing, time lines and technical information to fully investigate and remediate.
The DPH coordinated the calls among the agencies, reviewed the sample analytical results, and provided technical recommendations, according to the report.
The CPUC directed the collection by SoCalGas of vapor and soil sample analysis, met with the utility’s technical experts for an in-depth discussion on the laboratory analysis results of the samples. It also collaborate with state and local agencies to investigate the source of combustion, and directed SoCalGas to broaden the sampling.
FOUR YEARS…AND STILL THE GASSING KEEPS COMING
The residents, along with community and environmental groups, came together in October 2019 to observe the fourth anniversary of the onset of the Aliso Canyon blowout. On the actual anniversary, more than 60 residents and activists and one state lawmaker filled the concrete patch next to the SoCalGas gate on Sesnon Blvd. with signs and banners featuring messaging directed toward Newsom, for a press conference.
Among the speakers was the president and co-founder of the group Save Porter Ranch, Matt Pakucko who referred to the Saddleridge fire that burnt land on the gas storage site less than two weeks before, and the earthquakes, considered “major” that hit only 100 miles from the site in July. He mentioned the need for Governor Newsom to honor his campaign promise to shut down Aliso. He also pointed out the many agencies and elected officials who were supposed to protect the people, but are not doing that.
State Senator Henry Stern also addressed the crowd, pointing out that the community had still not seen justice, and mentioning the settlement money that was going to other areas, including to the Central Valley dairy digester projects, instead of helping the people who were harmed. He informed those gathered that as of that day, DOGGR was no longer in existence and was being replaced with a new agency called CalGEM Division (Geologic Energy Management). He said its mission will be “to protect public health, the environment, and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” He also mentioned the new law that he had sponsored that will mandate disclosure about chemicals emitted from the site, and the current decarbonization proceeding that the CPUC was holding.
Other speakers talked about the first rally that was held on October 30, 2015, outside the elementary school that’s just a mile away from some of the wells, as well as the need to get away from using gas.
The next day, approximately 100 persons including members of the Aliso Moms Alliance and Save Porter Ranch, and activists from Food & Water Action, Extinction Rebellion, and the Sunrise Movement LA, gathered on the driveway to the SoCal Gas gate. Many spoke about health problems, caused by the emissions, the lack of support and truth by regulators, politicians who haven’t stepped up, and what it was like living near a ticking seismic time bomb. Activists discussed how Aliso and other uses of fossil fuels affect the environment.
The protesters were prepared to stay there as long as possible, even facing arrest. But around 2:50 pm, a fire broke out in Canyon County, about 14 miles away. As the fire rapidly grew, the winds blew the smoke to the south, affecting the air quality in Porter Ranch. It was decided that the protest would move to Brentwood where Gavin Newsom will be attending a fundraising event for Senator Kamala Harris.
When the junior senator for California, Kamala Harris approached the driveway, she briefly talked with one member of Extinction Rebellion and said she would talk with the governor about Aliso.
What about other electeds? Congress member Brad Sherman, who represents many constituents in the area affected by Aliso, sent one of his aides to the press conference to address the crowd. His office put out a press release that stated, “SoCal Gas and the California Public Utilities Commission must immediately develop and implement a plan to shut down the Aliso Canyon facility, while maintaining reliable service. SoCal Gas has had four years to develop such a plan, and they will not act unless required to do so.” The release continued, “The Saddleridge fire was another painful reminder of the vulnerability of our community, whose residents have repeatedly been displaced in recent years by fires and the gas blowout. We may not be able to stop all that Mother Nature has in store for us, but we can reduce risk by decommissioning the Aliso Canyon storage facility.”
A representative of US senator Dianne Feinstein was present, but didn’t speak. Her office didn’t send out a current press release, but on July 20, 2017, she released a statement after the DOC announced the resumption of operation: “Aliso Canyon proved to be an immediate danger to the people living nearby, forcing more than 8,000 families from their homes. State inspectors may have cleared the facility to resume limited operations, but I believe it should remain closed.
“While I’m disappointed the facility will reopen, I’m pleased to learn Governor Brown has directed state agencies to plan for its permanent shutdown. I agree that Aliso Canyon is not consistent with our long-term climate change goals. It’s time for Southern California to move beyond Aliso Canyon and work toward a cleaner, safer energy system.”
On the anniversary, she issued this tweet: “Today is the 4th anniversary of the Aliso Canyon gas leak, the worst gas leak in U.S. history. California needs to work toward a cleaner, safer energy system that doesn’t endanger the lives of families living near these facilities.”
Supervisor Kathyrn Barger’s Valley field deputy told one protestor at the Fourth Anniversary Press Conference that his boss had another function to attend at the same time. Her tweet on October 23: “As we acknowledge the four-year anniversary of the #AlisoCanyon disaster, we commemorate the exhaustive efforts of the community members who have fought with us to protect and defend our neighbors who have endured so much since October 2014.” Another tweet mentioned the support for her “initiative to protect and preserve surrounding open space, including Hidden Creek property.” She added that the “$25 million health impact study I secured is moving forward.” Then she thanked the Community Advisory Group for the work they contributed to this study.” (note: Jarrod DeGonia showed up at the first meeting of the CAG and thanked the members for participating. That’s the closest acknowledgement the members had received from the supervisor.)
It is also interesting to note that she had issued several tweets about the Saddleridge fire, but any specific mentions of affected communities centered on Sylmar, and not on Porter Ranch.
Council member John Lee had initially told Food & Water Watch’s Alexandria Nagy that he would attend the press conference. But at the last minute, she received a message that he was going to meet with another council member instead.
Christy Smith didn’t issue a press release on the fourth anniversary, but on October 22, the day before the anniversary, she and Senator Stern sent a joint letter to the CPUC, stating a concern that a scoping memo regarding the I.17–02–002 proceeding (about reducing or eliminating the use of the Aliso facility) did not include strategies for options to reduce gas demand, and ignored the 2017 directive given by then-governor Brown to plan and implement phasing out the Aliso operations within a ten year period. This letter mentioned various strategies being considered as ways to reduce this demand, ones that were being considered by the city and county of Los Angeles.
Two candidates running for office, Loraine Lundquist, who’s running for full term of the city council seat in CD-12, and Darrell Park, who’s running for the LA County Supervisor seat in District 5, spoke at the press conference. In addition, Lundquist also addressed the protestors at the next day’s sit in.
It is worth noting that Lee took his first action regarding Aliso on the day before the anniversary, by introducing a motion to ask the City’s Petroleum and Natural Gas Safety Administrator to pull together a “detailed report” in thirty days (with the clock ticking after the resolution gets passed, of course) on the status of various reports, all of which are available online, and the investigations being conducted by the CPUC. This motion was referred to the city council’s Energy, Climate Change, and Environmental Justice Committee, which voted on December 3rd in a consent motion to pass it on to the city council. The motion stated that this information was important “in order for the City of Los Angeles to determine what additional actions need to be taken, in conjunction with the future closure of Aliso Canyon, to protect residents from similar incidents in the future.” It was voted in by the city council on December 11th.
His motion apparently was inspired by the one that Council member Mike Bonin had introduced in September. This motion, regarding the SoCalGas facility in Playa Del Rey, was on the City Council agenda for the October 29 meeting.
One has to think that perhaps the council member realized that the continuing operation of Aliso Canyon, especially in light of the recent Saddleridge fire that threatened to burn on the site, would become an issue for the upcoming city council election that takes place in March, and he wanted to say he “did something” about Aliso.
Granada Hills gas leak
While a main transmission line in a Granada Hills residential area was undergoing a month’s in-line inspection, it was struck and became ruptured on November 13th. The LAFD said it evacuated six homes on the involved street. But some residents on the street said that they weren’t evacuated, and learned about the leak from social media. In fact, residents on the affected street said they weren’t even officially notified about the work before it began and learned that their street will be torn up when signs went up. No letters sent via mail, no notices taped to their mailboxes, as is often done when residents would be affected by street closures, according to Helen Attai, a resident who lives on that street in question.
One thing to note is that there are a few schools that were located within a couple of miles of the project.
As had happened on many occasions in the four years since the blowout began, SoCal Gas officials claimed there was “no threat to public health or safety.”
Attai said that when she had called the gas company the week before about her concerns, she was told by the project manager that there will not be any gas flowing in those pipelines while they were working on it. When she questioned the gas company and fire department who were at the site for this incident, about how there could be a “high pressure gas eruption” if there wasn’t any gas in the line, she was told “oh, this was an accident.”
That day, she continued to smell the gas very strongly, so she called the AQMD. Due to her symptoms (headaches, stomach pains, sensation of burning on her skin, dizziness, and eye irritation), she felt the need to seek medical help at an urgent care center.
THE GOVERNOR ISSUES DIRECTIVE REGARDING CLOSING ALISO
During his campaign for governor, Newsom had said he supported the permanent closing of Aliso Canyon. This was documented by Lauren Windsor of The Undercurrents, that he was “fully committed” to take that action. He also assured the same with Jane Fowler and Deirdre Bolona of the Aliso Moms Alliance when the women found him at two Democratic Conventions.
Some of the Aliso Moms Alliance, along with Alexandria Nagy, the California director of Food & Water Watch, traveled in August to Sacramento to discuss Aliso with Alice Reynolds, Senior Advisor for Energy in Newsom’s administration.
Finally on November 19th, Governor Newsom released a letter asking the CPUC to “expedite planning for the permanent closure” of the Aliso Canyon storage facility. He said that he was concerned that the proceeding (referring to Order Instituting Investigation; I.17–02–002 ), “will not yield the fastest and most workable path toward closure…” He cited the need of this action “to increase public health and safety protections and to combat climate change…” He requested that an independent third-party expert be hired to identify viable alternatives to the facility and scenarios that can lead to a quicker closure.
Senator Stern and Assembly member Smith issued a joint letter: “A truly independent analysis that determines how to close Aliso for good, refusing to falsely pit the interests and safety of Porter Ranch against the rest of Southern California, is exactly what we need. Governor Newsom has made promises to our community and he is stepping up to fulfill them. For that, we commend him and look forward to continuing this partnership.
“Governor Newsom’s call to expedite planning for the permanent closure of the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility is a positive step for ensuring the long-term safety of our North Valley communities and the reduction of our reliance on fossil fuels. With the ever-growing threat of climate change and wildfires on the rise, the protection of our constituents’ health and well-being is time sensitive. The shortening of the timeline for closure is a necessity and urgent”.
Smith also tweeted about the directive: I join @HenrySternCA in commending Gov. @GavinNewsom’s call for an expedited plan for the closure of the Aliso Gas Facility. Our neighbors in Porter Ranch and surrounding #AD38 communities have waited long enough for a comprehensive plan to transition away from fossil fuels.
After Governor Newsom requested the CPUC to expedite the closure of Aliso, Lee introduced a new resolution on December 11, 2019, to include support for legislative and regulatory efforts associated with reducing the need of the facility and its eventual decommissioning. Also, to urge the Governor to take required necessary steps, including an immediate directive to the CPUC and DOGGR, to accelerate a permanent closure plan for the facility in order to keep his promise to protect the health and welfare of City residents and to preserve the environment. It also asked for the state agencies to provide quarterly updates of the closure plan. At this time, it has been referred to the Rules, Elections & Intergovernmental Relations Committee, which is scheduled to meet on January 17.
A few weeks before this resolution was introduced in a council meeting, a group of community leaders from Save Porter Ranch, the Aliso Canyon Community Action Committee, and the Aliso Moms Alliance met with Lee and his legislative deputy to discuss what they felt was needed in a resolution regarding closing Aliso.
SOCALGAS’S NOT VERY GOOD END OF THE YEAR
On October 22nd, SoCalGas was served a subpoena to appear regarding the conflict of interest allegation concerning Kenneth Bruno and the Blade Energy report. But instead of complying, and allowing the person most qualified to testify, it filed another motion and no one from SoCalGas showed up for the November 1st deposition. The SED said that the subpoena was valid in a November 26th response.
Kenneth Bruno, the CPUC employee who was tasked with overseeing the killing of well SS-25, submitted a document dated October 24th for inclusion in the sanctions investigation docket that recounted how he came to file a lawsuit against SoCalGas. Along with suggesting he was defamed by the utility when it claim his lawsuit tainted the Blade report, he also accused SoCalGas and Sempra of trying to avoid releasing information about the toxic components in the gas emissions. “By withholding this information, SoCalGas demonstrates it has no moral obligation to reduce harm from the gas: something that can only happen by disclosure of the chemicals to allow proper medical care or protection from exposure,” the brief stated. (On June 20th, Bruno had been reassigned to another department at the CPUC in order to avoid any potential conflict of interest or appearance of a conflict of interest)
In a declaration Bruno filed in response to the gas company’s claim about him, he explained how he had heard, during his treatments for his leukemia, about the medical problems residents and fire fighters were having. He started his own research to see if the benzene exposure could be the cause of his illness and that led to his filing his suit.
To date, the most recent document in the Safety OII docket was issued on October 23, 2019, authorizing the SED to retain an expert consultant to assist in the investigation. Moreover, the utility will pay for this service.
In regards to the Sanctions OII, on November 22, 2019 the CPUC released an opening testimony report that cited 330 violations. In its opening testimony, the Safety and Enforcement Division’s testimony alleged numerous safety, health, and recordkeeping violations and multiple instances in which SoCalGas did not cooperate with the Safety and Enforcement Division’s investigation, resulting in additional violations of statutes, and CPUC rules and regulations.
In its opening testimony, the Safety and Enforcement Division’s testimony alleged numerous safety, health, and recordkeeping violations and multiple instances in which SoCalGas did not cooperate with the Safety and Enforcement Division’s investigation, resulting in additional violations of statutes, and CPUC rules and regulations.
One item mentioned was that DPH said that SoCalGas knew that well SS-25 released both crude oil and natural gas between October 23, 2015 to February 12, 2016, but didn’t disclosed this fact to the health department.
When it came to DPH’s assertion that the utility had not provided a list of chemicals it had used, the utility responded, “Your suggestion that SoCalGas somehow withheld information or was otherwise not fully transparent with respect to the components of natural gas released during the incident, and your statements concerning DPH’s ability to perform a health assessment, are simply incorrect.”
The document listed many instances in which SoCalGas did not cooperate with the SED. For example, the utility delayed giving documents asked for, and then gave a data dump. The result was that Blade Energy had to delay by two months the release of the root cause analysis. Also, the gas company didn’t produce requested representatives from Boots and Coots to testify, despite subpoenas. Additionally, it also refused to provide some requested communications, claiming privilege.
Another violation was that SoCalGas had communication with counsel representing Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison about contents from Examinations of Oath. Revealing such information breached SoCalGas’s promise to treat the EUO transcripts confidential, and compromised the ability of SED to keep the contents of its safety-related pre-formal investigation confidential, thereby violating Section 451 on two counts.
As stated in the Blade RCA, SoCalGas did not keep complete, accurate, or accessible records that were necessary for the safe operation and maintenance of its wells.
One source of information was James Mansdorfer, who had been a storage engineering manager for SoCalGas. He had been the employee who had let the DOC know in 2017 about the seismic danger at the Aliso site. For the RCA, he provided much testimony about problems that SoCalGas failed to address for years. For example, he mentioned the lack of a risk assessment program or wellbore integrity management plan goes back to at least 2009, when the manager recommended to his direct supervisor the company implement such programs.
Regarding subsurface safety valves, he noted that during the 1970s, the valves installed at Aliso all failed and were removed. But he says that the technology now exist for valves to be able to withstand high flow rates.
This is the document:
The CPUC held another workshop on 1.17–020–02 on November 13th, a week before the Governor issued his directive. A month later, the CPUC issued a document regarding the next phrase of the OII into the question of whether Aliso can be closed or its operations reduced. But from the wording of the two timelines using 2027 and 2045 as goals, it seeme that the agency wasn’t trying to expedite the proceeding. It did mention the agency intended to retain the services of an expert consultant to undertake an examination of the issues in Phase 2.
In her December 10 letter to the governor, the president of the CPUC, Marybel Batjer acknowledged the goal of closing Aliso per his directive.
As for the gas industry, it is facing an existential threat to the continued use of natural gas.
In 2019, as reported by the Sierra Club, several cities, towns and counties in California have voted gas bans or voted for new electrification codes. And currently environmental groups are working to convince the California Energy Commission to reflect the transition off of the use of gas in new buildings by changing the Title 24 building code (the next set of changes to be passed will go into effect in2022).
On December 11th,the CEC approved six applications for local energy ordinances that exceed statement requirements of the 2019 standards, including West Hollywood’s that states that new buildings and major modifications must include either solar photovoltaic, solar thermal, or a vegetative roof, and larger buildings must have additional energy and water efficiency measures.
This trend has spread to other areas. Massachusetts is starting to see the same bans being adopted. The District of Columbia Public Service Commission rejected a proposal from its gas company for a controversial gas hookup subsidy program. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission rejected a proposed “renewable natural gas” program.
2020 ISN’T LOOKING TOO GOOD EITHER FOR SOCALGAS
Three separate events occurring within the first nine days of the year didn’t fare so good for the utility.
On the January 6th, the judge overseeing the mass tort case told DPH that it must turn over to plaintiff attorneys information about residents and DPH workers involved in the March 2016 Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response (CASPER) survey. In part one of this series, DPH admitted that some of the workers conducting the door-to-door survey reported feeling ill while in the Porter Ranch area. The reason for the residents’ info is really more to map out locations where symptoms were felt and not to reveal specific residents’ medical conditions.
The next day, the County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on a resolution to support the governor’s November 18th directive to “expedite” the closure of the Aliso facility. First, Supervisor Kathryn Barger started with a head-scratching lead in mentioning “the criticism from some.” She also stated, “how unprecedented it is that we even get to have a health study in the first place,” perhaps oblivious that when there’s a major environmental problem or disaster that affects health, there should be a health study (for example, the studies for residents regarding the Flint water crisis, the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and the West Virginian poisoning of the water supply).
The resolution, just as council member Lee’s mentioned only methane and ethane. It also stated that “there are still periodic health and odor complaints.”
Supervisor Janice Hahn asked for an amendment regarding the Playa Del Rey gas storage facility, that would keep the storage capacity from being increased due to closing Aliso, and in addition, look into closing it.
When several residents and activists gave public comment, they painted a more dire picture for the board. That people were getting serious illnesses, including cancers. That the facility was causing quality of life issues. That it posed seismic and fire risks. The speakers asked that the resolution go further and request an end date for the site to be still in operation, by the end of the year. As Matt Pakucko, of Save Porter Ranch, explained, “Without a deadline, it is just a dream.” Also requests called for the county to issue a subpoena to SoCalGas for a comprehensive list of chemicals, and in addition, ask for the CPUC to roll back its withdrawal protocol to pre-July standards.
In response to the media, SoCalGas issued statements that referred to “several studies” that said Aliso is necessary to energy reliability. But the only study the gas company named was the CCST (California Council on Science and Technology) study, which came out in January 2018, more than a year before the root cause analysis. In that study, there were many references to health and safety concerns. It even stated that the scientists had requested a full list of materials used by SoCalGas at Aliso, but all that they received was a list of chemical used to kill SS-25.
Among the many concerns mentioned in this report is that underground gas storage facilities located near population areas can cause problems due to exposures to the substances emitted and may have a risk of ignition.
One has to wonder about the wisdom of SoCalGas to tout a study that points out the many reasons Aliso is a danger to the northern San Fernando Valley.
On the third day, the judge ordered another deposition lasting up to five hours of the person most qualified to speak on the chemicals, SCG chemical engineer May Lew.
Also occurring on January 6th, a letter was addressed to Governor Newsom on the first anniversary of his taking office. More than three dozen organizations signed on, asking the governor to take bolder action in his second year of office to help combat climate change “before it is too late.” Among the asks are to declare a climate emergency, issue an immediate moratorium on new fossil fuel permits, ban fracking, shut down Aliso Canyon, and institute buffer ones to protect against community drilling. Creating strategies for getting the state off of the use of fossil fuels is an important task that the governor needs to ensure happens.
Stay tune for more developments.