Families in Porter Ranch are fed up. After more than a year-and-a-half, officials have yet to get to the bottom of what caused the largest gas blowout in U.S. history in October 2015. That four month blowout released more than 100,000 metric tons of methane into the air, sickening residents and forcing 25,000 residents to leave their homes for months. What’s more, SoCalGas, which operates the aging Alison Canyon gas storage field, is aggressively seeking to reopen the facility, which has been shut since the blowout was capped.
A bill that would require SoCalGas to investigate the cause of the blowout recently stalled, just three votes shy of passing. SB 57, which would require SoCalGas to complete a “root cause analysis” of the disaster, could come up for a vote again in later in June, if the bill’s supporters are able to line up the votes. State Sen. Henry Stern, the bill’s sponsor, blames a full court press by lobbyists for Sempra Energy—SoCalGas’ parent company—for derailing the measure.
“Given the power of the gas lobby, I’m not surprised the bill stalled,” Senator Stern said in a statement.
Follow the money
San Diego-based Sempra Energy made the top 10 list for lobbying expenditures in California so far this year, spending $439,543 since January. The four Democrats and three Republicans who abstained from the vote all take money from Sempra, earning them the moniker “The Sempra Seven.” Among them is Ed Hernandez, who is running for Lieutenant Governor in 2018, and has taken $42,550 from oil and gas corporations and another $ 9,300 from Sempra over the last eight years.
Residents from Porter Ranch and nearby communities flooded state senators with calls and some even made multiple trips to Sacramento meet with legislative staffers. Andrew Krowne, who made the trip to Sacramento recently with his wife and three of his five children, said it was hard to break through legislators’ inclination to take state regulators and SoCalGas at their word.
“We have to show that the people they have been trusting are really the bad guys,” he said. “You add money on top of that, and it complicates everything,” Krowne added referring to the oil and gas industry’s campaign contributions.
Facility still leaking
Meanwhile the Aliso Canyon storage facility continues to leak twice daily according to testimony by a SoCalGas storage manager before the local Air Quality Management District Hearing Board. There have been more than ten larger leaks and spills at the Aliso Canyon field since the blowout was capped in February 2016. Each new release of toxic methane and petroleum chemicals send nearby residents into another downward health spiral.
Residents still sick
Residents of Porter Ranch and nearby towns in the North San Fernando Valley face ongoing health problems including headaches, nausea, nosebleeds and respiratory symptoms. A local physician, Dr. Jeffrey Nordella, who operates an urgent care clinic has been compiling records of patient complaints he says could be related to the gas blowout. He has found a pattern of low red cell counts and respiratory problems in some 50 patients and believes that the symptoms could be caused by toxins released in the blow out.
“I can’t remember what it’s like not to have nosebleeds,” said Kyoko Hibino of Porter Ranch, who gets them about ten days out of a month. Like other residents, Hibino also has bronchitis and frequent headaches. “This is a living hell,” she said. Hibino, an architect, does not have health insurance and pays for emergency medical visits out of pocket.
Residents in the North San Fernando Valley are demanding that SoCalGas fund a long-term health study on the effects of the months-long methane and other chemicals associated with the blowout, and Dr. Nordella is interested in working with the Los Angeles Department of Public Health, should such a study be funded.
Half a dozen teachers at a Porter Ranch elementary school have been diagnosed with cancer over the last ten years. At least one, Susie Kimmel, told a local television reporter shortly before her death in May that she believed that her disease was linked to toxic exposure over time from the Aliso Canyon gas facility. Records show that formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, is among the chemicals released from the facility over 14 years leading up to the gas eruption.
Families in Porter Ranch and the surrounding communities say they will not feel safe until the Aliso Canyon storage facility closed for good. “This facility has to go,” said Krowne. “They have been poisoning people for decades. This industry has total disregard for its neighbors,” added Krowne who has lived within five miles of the gas storage facility his entire life.
Residents hope that forcing SoCalGas to investigate what caused the blowout will be the first step in showing that the aging, leaky facility is too dangerous to operate.