Residents continue to pressure the Governor to shut down the facility.
Five years ago, the northern San Fernando Valley became ground zero for the largest gas disaster in U.S. history. Every year, residents and environmental activists have gathered to mark each year’s milestone in various ways. From park gatherings to press conferences to sit-ins, even a premiere of a documentary that featured the blowout along with two other gas-oriented disasters. But in a year that has been unlike any other year, those planning the fifth-anniversary commemoration had to consider socially distanced activities.
On October 20th, some residents from the San Fernando Valley joined up with members of local groups to take part in a car caravan to the home of Governor Gavin Newsom in Sacramento. When they reached their destination, Porter Ranch photojournalist Hannah Benet set up her popup project entitled “Aliso Stories.” One by one, the residents’ portraits were held up and their stories were recited.
Then on Thursday, Valley residents along with Food & Water Action and other groups held another car caravan, in downtown Los Angeles. The caravan winded past Pershing Square and stopped at the SoCalGas headquarters and was live-streamed by Ground Game LA. Knock-LA’s Nicole Levin and Chris Roth interviewed Loraine Lundquist, a faculty associated in Sustainability, Matt d’Alessio, a geoscience professor, who discussed from their car how unsafe Aliso is, resident Andrew Krowne, who discussed his work on the Aliso Canyon Disaster Health Research Study’s Community Advisory Group (CAG), as well as Board of Education member Scott Schmerelson who discussed measures he had taken after the blowout to temporarily relocate the two Porter Ranch schools.
During the protest, it was reported that the major street in front of the SoCalGas Aliso Canyon facility was closed off and that Air Quality Management District (AQMD), as well as Hazmat trucks, were present.
I went up to the area close to the Aliso gate and asked a police officer about the police presence. I was told there was concern about an anniversary protest happening there, as the year before protestors had staged a sit in. When I asked about the AQMD and Hazmat trucks, the answer was that there was an inspection that morning.
The final event of the week was a webinar on the actual anniversary date, October 23rd, to recap the previous events as well as to feature speakers who covered topics such as how to get the facility shut down. The California director of Food &Water Action, Alexandra Nagy emceed and started the program by mentioning the co-sponsors, the Aliso Moms Alliance, the Center for Biological Diversity, Save Porter Ranch, and Sierra Club/Angeles Chapter, adding that these are just a small fraction of the organizations in the fight to shut down Aliso Canyon.
“Tonight, we’re honoring those lives harmed from this disaster. Those who are still getting sick and we’re fighting for them. Lives are on the line,” she said. “We’ve had a rich history of organizing for this goal from when Governor Brown was in office to Gov. Newsom today.”
People are still getting sick from the increased use of Aliso Canyon.
Ethan Senser, an organizer with Food & Water Action, presented a video timeline about the blowout, that began on October 23, 2015. The initial emissions included toxic chemicals such as benzene and formaldehyde and led to 8,000 families seeking relocation from the area. A survey found that 70 percent of residents had headaches while nearly half were experiencing nosebleeds.
Residents have had to deal with several more leaks, a wildfire atop the facility, and the fear of an earthquake damaging another well.
Aliso Canyon is not needed for energy reliability. Those watching the webinar were encouraged to sign and share the Food & Water Action petition to be sent to Governor Gavin Newsom, and also to call his office, asking him to close down the facility.
The next portion of the webinar featured a video from State Senator Henry Stern. “Like many of you, I’m tired and fed up. I know people are still sick and it’s finally time to shut down Aliso Canyon down once and for all. The delays we’ve seen pursuing change are not surprising given there’s a lot of reticence about the transition to renewable energy. We see it happening on the presidential stage all the way down to the city council races and back rooms of the Public Utilities Commission,” he said. “The fight for more climate justice is not easy.”
The senator mentioned the need for incentives for homeowners to electrify and get off natural gas. “We’ve got to make a case not just to our community, but to all of Los Angeles and the whole state of California and frankly the whole county, that shutting Aliso is going to be good for workers, good for ratepayers, and for the community that has been hurting too long.”
Listing clean microgrids, distributed battery storage, statewide use of renewables, and a grid that’s capable of delivering power quickly and affordably to all Angelenos and Californians, Stern made the case that shutting down Aliso is very possible.
“I hope I don’t see you at the sixth anniversary of the blowout. Let’s make that anniversary where we can say goodbye to Aliso forever,” he declared.
After reminding attendees to share the petition, Alex introduced the co-founders of Save Porter Ranch, Matt Pakucko and Kyoko Hibino.
“I met Matt and Kyoko in April 2015. We fought fracking and expansion of oil drilling on the outskirts of the Aliso oil field. As we worked together, we realized the community close to the oil field could smell gas odors for a very long time.
Even worse, headaches, nosebleeds, and nausea were already commonplace and we realized that the oil field was the least of the community’s concerns. We discovered that SoCalGas was operating the fourth largest underground storage facility within the boundaries of that oil field […] we had no idea.”
“ It really blows everyone’s mind that we can wage a fight for so long and still not get justice,” Matt said. “Don’t be discouraged by that because we’ve done a whole lot and that wouldn’t happen if we had not organized and not fought.
According to Matt, the community did not expect to be on the frontlines of the biggest environmental and health disaster — they’ve done canvassing, started a Facebook page, and have educated people. “Our organization pushed so hard on the Health Department, they finally ordered the relocation and evacuation of residents. We pushed to get the legislature to shut that place down.”
“SoCalGas is putting their grubby paws all over everything. They know they’re in trouble, they’re a dying industry, and still trying to kill us.”
[Here is the Save Porter Ranch website.]
Kyoko explained there’s no future in gas as it’s already being phased out. “We’re constantly making noise in the last few years about how dangerous the facility is for our health, climate change. People get it so thank you so much, everyone.”
Kyoko pointed out that 35 cities in California have already passed electrification ordinances — but SoCalGas has been infiltrating every sustainable green energy organization with propaganda.
“They’re trying to sell themselves to save their company,” Kyoko said.
Next, Hannah Benet, who has been documenting the community’s response to Aliso for four years, gave a recap of the week’s events, “I started a project, Aliso Stories, meeting with people, and documenting their stories and their experiences, not just during the blowout, but after the blowout and what that human experience is like.”
[Here’s Hannah’s website.]
A video showed Dr. Jeffrey Nordella, a local physician on the health study Scientific Oversight Committee, discussing chemicals; Kyoko, explaining why it’s important for people to move away from the use of gas appliances; and V. John White, Director of the Center for Energy Efficiently and Renewable Technology talking about building electrification.
The next video shown featured the four underground gas storage facilities located in Southern California — Alex Austin (Porter Ranch), Yvonne Martinez Watson (Montebello), Paul Young (Playa Del Rey), and Elena and Chris (Goleta) discussed living near these facilities.
Yvonne, who’s with the Sierra Club, discussed the battle to close down the Montebello site. A settlement between SoCalGas and the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) in 2001 involved removing the gas including the cushion gas used to retain pressure in the wells. She said it took 15 years for the decommissioning process to occur, which involved the purchase of 15 properties to demolish as they couldn’t be totally remediated.
She said the residents were told there would be a health study. But, despite sending in public records requests, she’s finding it difficult to get a straight answer.
Ethan talked about a strategy that SoCalGas uses to make it seem it’s a good neighbor by providing money for organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club. He suggests that a better solution would be for the government to provide for these groups that take care of people. He also mentioned that one ploy of SoCalGas is to pit communities against each other. He suggested that instead communities should join forces instead of buying into this, by pushing for clean energy.
[SoCalGas is required to file an annual report with the CPUC of its expenditures that includes donations to special interest and business groups. Matt alluded to how representatives from some groups will show up to hearings and extol the virtues of SoCalGas and say how Aliso Canyon needs to be in operation. These groups do get money each year from SoCalGas. Here’s the most recent of those reports.]
I then spoke about the Aliso Canyon Disaster Health Study to give an update about the successes the Community Advisory Group (CAG) has had since its first meeting in August 2019, and the obstacles it has faced. Speaking as a member of the CAG, but prefacing my spiel that I’m not representing the views of the entire group, I said that our mission was to have a health study that is community-centric, science-based, and absent of political agendas or influence. I added that our hope is that the results can be applied to all communities near oil and gas facilities.
This health study will not begin until the summer of 2021.
Among our successes is to push Supervisor Kathryn Barger to subpoena SoCalGas for a comprehensive list of all chemicals used at Aliso, and our work to get the government lawyers to work on setting up the air monitoring system funded by the 2018 consent decree.
But I, and some other members of the CAG, feel we aren’t being treated as a partner and feel that we’ve been blocked or delayed by the Department of Public Health. Often our advice isn’t being considered.
I also brought up the evidence bins, containing possible other chemicals, that we only recently found out about. At least 31 bins were removed in 2016. Of the remaining (about 150) bins, nine were tested, and among the chemicals found was radioactive polonium. A report about the results of this testing can be found on the CAG website.
Here’s the CAG’s website
This is a link to the chemicals petition.
Next up on the webinar was Dr. Loraine Lundquist, a faculty associate in Sustainability at CSUN, who discussed the CPUC’s ongoing reliability study. She explained that bill SB-380, passed in 2016, required the agency to study the feasibility of shutting down the facility altogether.
“They’ve been taking an awfully long time to do that and they had their most recent workshop last week to continue to examine this question. The good news is that what they’re finding is that you really don’t need Aliso except in very extreme cases. And then if you didn’t have Aliso, you wouldn’t ever have to curtail even in the coldest days that would happen once every 35 years,” she said.
All of these even with our current infrastructure. However, at the same time, SoCalGas is asking the CPUC to use the facility more and more.
According to Lundquist these reliability workshops do not factor in the risk to the community — if an earthquake were to occur, for example, 115 wells could blowout.
“It doesn’t take into account the health risks to all of you who are living here in this community and it doesn’t take into account the climate risks, of course, the fact that we need to be shifting off of fossil fuels anyway.”
Patricia Oliver, who’s representing some of the residents and firefighters in the upcoming civil lawsuit against SoCalGas, expressed sympathy for how the community is suffering. “I know your stories. I know your families. I know your children, your pets. We know what you’ve lost.”
“There’s nothing that can ever, ever, take you back to what you’ve lost. But what button can you push and say it’s fixed but with that said, as lawyers representing so many people in the community, we are fighting nonstop to get you the best recovery that we can and we are working nonstop quite literally round the clock to figure out what we can do.”
According to Patricia, in December the court dismissed claims against Sempra on the basis that Sempra wasn’t in charge of SoCalGas — which is not true.
“I know how many people are frustrated with the length it’s taking you to get a recovery and we share in that frustration. We really want to move as quickly as we can and hope that in the next year you see the justice you deserve,” she said.
And Governor Gavin Newsom has promised to shut down the facility.
Alex showed the video by producer Lauren Windsor, who asked Gavin Newsom in March 2018 when he was running for governor, “If you’re governor, will you shut down Aliso Canyon?”
Newsom responded that “Yeah, I’m fully committed today,” adding “This is a major national issue.” But when Lauren pressed him on whether closing the facility is a top priority for him, he responded, “The mechanism to do it quickly is the question. And it can’t be just be done by the governor saying ‘we’re going do it.’ If it could, that would be wonderful. So, it requires some steps, but I’m fully committed.”
Alex brought up Sempra Energy’s donation of $31,200 to Newsom for his gubernatorial race, pointing out” It’s not the only video we have of him,” adding that we want to have a simple sit down meeting with him, so we can calmly explain what’s going on. Instead, we have to track him down like this.” She thanked Jane Fowler, Deirdre Bolona, and Helen Attair for their efforts to get him on the record.
She explained that he will be running for reelection in 2022 and has presidential aspirations for the future. He had signed the no fossil fuel pledge but still accepted fossil fuel money. “We’re going to demand of him that he stop taking fossil fuel money. We’re going to be calling on him to stand up to SoCalGas.”
“We know we can get by without Aliso Canyon. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of the political will,” Alex said.
She said the planners of this fifth anniversary week wanted to make it count and continue to hold the governor Newsom accountable with escalated direct action. “It’s really up to him. He can with a stroke of a pen shut down Aliso,” she said. Alex is calling for the Governor to shut down the facility by November 2021.
The key is to keep organizing, publicly.
“They’re waiting for us to fade away,” Matt said. “To shut this site down is as simple as organizing. Now organizing is not easy, but it’s easier with more people.”
NOTE: I’m a member of the Aliso Canyon Disaster Health Study Community Advisory Committee (CAG), but any views I’m stating are mine, and not of the CAG.