As a grassroots organizer working to transition Los Angeles to 100 percent clean, renewable energy, I think about the dangers of oil and gas operations all day, every day. Those dangers became frighteningly personal on November 29th when my family, my neighbors and I were assaulted by the sickening odor of gas. After a sleepless night and multiple misleading reports from SoCalGas, we were told not to worry—there was no gas leak. The cause of the foul odor was an odorant spill at a nearby plant. There was “no danger,” according to the gas company.
Except that the odorant added to natural gas is mercaptan, a noxious gas that can cause nausea, headaches, vomiting, upset stomach, dizziness and unknown longer-term health effects. It was this substance, among other chemicals, that sickened so many San Fernando Valley families during the Aliso Canyon blowout, leading to the relocation of more than 20,000 residents. In fact, an Air Quality Management District inspector told me on my doorstep that my neighborhood smelled exactly like Porter Ranch did after the Aliso Canyon disaster. Scary.
I first noticed the smell at about 8:15 p.m. on the 29th when my 71-year-old father and I went out for a quick bite. The stench was palpable in Westwood, a couple of miles from my home, where we ate. When we returned home, the stink was worse. I jumped into organizer mode, handing my neighbors “If you smell something, say something” flyers that I happened to have on hand from my work with communities near gas facilities. Then, I jumped on social media and on the phone to contact SoCalGas and numerous local agencies that might intervene. A staffer in the office of Paul Koretz, my City Council member, started contacting SoCalGas and public officials around midnight.
By this time, I had a throbbing headache and my eyes were burning. We shut the windows and turned on the air filter. My husband covered his mouth and nose with a wet towel to protect his lungs while I continued to make calls in the early morning hours. My dog was clearly uncomfortable and remained groggy through the next day. None of us slept much. A day later, my head still throbbed and my eyes still burned.
This incident was a warning. If a small leak can sicken thousands of Westside families, what would happen in an earthquake? What would happen in a fire or explosion? A neighbor in her eighth month of pregnancy was told by SoCalGas that she and her baby are safe. But according to the Centers for Disease Control, “Methyl mercaptan is highly irritant when it contacts moist tissues such as the eyes, skin, and upper respiratory tract. It can also induce headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, coma, and death.” Are they really safe?
Weeks later, I am indignant. Who will hold SoCalGas and its contractors accountable? The Los Angeles City Council passed a motion to look into the spill, while the petroleum administrator and other regulators will report back in the coming weeks. We need to know exactly what happened, exactly how much toxic odorant spilled, and what the potential long-term health effects are for impacted individuals. We need a plan to prevent another spill in the future, and for our elected officials to step up and demand answers from SoCalGas, which is notorious for dodging responsibility. Even more, we need the City Council to pass a pending resolution mandating a 2,500-foot buffer between fossil fuel operations and homes, schools and parks. Most of all, we need to get Los Angeles off dirty oil and gas to protect our health, our communities and our planet. That fight, which is my job and my passion, is now personal.