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Did the Public Utility Commission Tell SoCalGas to Dispose of Evidence?

Nearly five years after the Aliso Canyon Blowout, 1.2 million people still don’t know how they were poisoned.

Aliso Canyon Gas Storage Facility. (via Wikimedia Commons)

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) — a body created to regulate utilities and protect consumers — directed a private utility to dispose of materials crucial to an ongoing health study, according to community members and activists.

According to a letter sent to County Supervisor Kathryn Barger from The Aliso Canyon Disaster Health Research Study (ACDHRS) Community Advisory Group(CAG), the CPUC sent disposal instructions to Southern California Gas (SoCalGas) telling them to dispose of excavated soil from the site of the massive Aliso Canyon Gas Blowout.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health is in the beginning stages of a court-ordered 25 million dollar health study looking into the health effects of the 111 day, record-breaking leak.

“The CAG is appalled the county didn’t file an injunction upon learning about the PUC instruction to destroy this evidence,” Andrew Krowne, CAG Member said. “That material may provide the scientists doing the health study critical information. There is no logical reason that you would not test the material.”

According to the CAG letter sent to Barger, “Any manipulation of these samples should be viewed as tampering of scientific evidence.”

Community members found out about the CPUC request in early August and estimate that it could have been made as early as June. “We are very unclear of who knew what when and are not getting clear answers from DPH,” said Craig Galanti, a member of CAG. “I am advocating that DPH look to an independent group of the Scientific Oversite Committee to direct the further investigation,” Galanti said.

It’s possible that the original order to remove the evidence came from the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC).

Alexandra Nagy, California Director of Food & Water Action, said the call to dispose of this evidence is especially problematic since we still do not know the full makeup of chemical exposure from the gas blowout. (SoCalGas has not released the list of toxins released during the blowout, and the Department of Public Health has not subpoenaed the list, despite it being in the County’s power to do so.)

“It’s going to be really valuable to look at the soil and materials to determine what people have been exposed to,” Nagy said.

Especially in the context of COVID, these samples would be critical to helping the 1.2 million residents of the San Fernando Valley determine if they might have been exposed to any heavy metals, which would put them at higher risk for COVID complications.

“With the current state of the global pandemic, the COVID-19 crisis is an added risk to those whose immune systems have been compromised by these heavy metals and other chemicals of concern. Therefore, we need urgent answers instead of disposing of potentially helpful soil samples,” said Jeffery Nordella, MD, ACDHRS Scientific Oversight Community Member in a press release.

While the samples (150 bins, according to Krowne) have been at the site for four-and-a-half years, Krowne says community members have gotten mixed messages about how long the Department of Public Health has known about their existence. A member of Barger’s office said they found out in late July, yet a chief scientist of the Department of Public Health said they’ve known about the bins since late October. “If it was in October and you didn’t act that’s unconscionable,” Krowne said.

Two activists hold signs saying "Aliso Canyon is a Health Crisis" and "Our Future is On Fire"
Activists protest at the four year anniversary of the blowout. (PHOTO: Hannah Benet.)

This is all happening in the same week that a high ranking official at the CPUC was placed on administrative leave for whistleblowing.

The CPUC has also relaxed withdrawal protocols for Aliso, and increased usage of the facility, despite the fact this increases the risk of another leak.

Meanwhile, SoCalGas has attempted to use COVID-19 as a way to delay necessary safety tests of the facility.

The CPUC order is scheduled to be carried out by August 24, at the latest. Community members are calling on Kathryn Barger to halt the disposal of the evidence until they can study it further.

“I don’t know what is worse, fighting a corrupt utility or fighting against the government bodies that are supposed to be protecting us,” Krowne said.

“Supervisor Barger has directed staff to work with county and state agencies to allow for the delay of the removal of the storage bins for 90 days,” Supervisor Barger’s office told KNOCK.LA. “This will allow the County Health Department to continue in the collection of soil and material samples which is critical to the Aliso Canyon Health Study.”

A Department of Public Health employee told KNOCK that the Department became aware of bins containing samples of soil from well SS-25 — the site of the leak — last October, but did not know that the bins contained other blowout materials (such as fluids, oily products, and drilling muds) until July 31st of this year.

“DPH is currently investigating the circumstances that have led to the directive requiring SoCalGas to dispose of the waste bins by August 24th,” the DPH employee said, “and is working with state and local agencies to extend the amount of time that the bins are held at the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility.”

The employee further said that DPH procured samples from the bins on August 4th and plan to test them with an independent lab.

Members of CAP say that DPH is using the same lab that failed to test for benzene during the initial blowout.

This article was updated on Sunday, August 16th to add the response from Supervisor Kathryn Barger’s office and on Tuesday, August 18th to add the response from DPH.