The Sisyphean Quest for Straight Answers From LA County DPH and SoCal Gas
In ancient Greek mythology, the character of Sisyphus is punished for deceitfulness by being doomed to repeatedly push a giant boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down each time he nears the top. Queries to LA County DPH and SoCal Gas for substantive information supporting their claims seem to have a similar fate.
When asked for further explanation to support the March 8 letter’s assertions that toxicological tests “are not recommended and are unlikely to provide useful data for clinical evaluation of patients,” a DPH spokesperson referenced the video of a May 19 community meeting in Porter Ranch, saying that Dr. Rangan and DPH Interim Health Director Dr. Jeffrey Gunzenhauser answered such questions when queried on the matter by residents. But while such questions were posed, the answers provided were of a circular nature.
“In general, we find that testing for chemicals, etc., in this situation is really not going to be productive for you… the kinds of decisions that are most important about your health are not going to be solved by some of these tests,” Dr. Gunzenhauser said, re-asserting the directive while failing to specifically address why DPH feels that toxicological testing would not be “productive” in analyzing what might be ailing patients.
This led to another frustrated resident posing the question about toxicological testing again. The man stated that one family did such testing on their own initiative and found elevated readings of benzene and styrene. “We need a directive that says look, as opposed to not look,” he pleaded. Dr. Rangan then claimed that the reason for testing medically is to try to assess treatment and noted that such tests are generally for monitoring workers exposed to chemicals on a regular basis, as if Porter Ranch residents hadn’t also been subjected to contaminants on a regular basis since the gas blowout.
“But when we’re talking about individual patients, we don’t really get these tests for medical reasons. So that’s my message to physicians, so ordering these tests for medical purposes is either not useful or potentially misleading… By and large, these tests don’t actually help us with medical management of patients,” Dr. Rangan claimed, again re-asserting the directive while failing to address why such tests are “not useful.”
The resident who asked the question still wasn’t satisfied, responding that, “The problem here is that we have this exposure that is unprecedented. The reality is no one knows what to test for in these kinds of conditions, so we need to err on the side of caution” – a sentiment that received a noticeable round of approval from the audience. Rangan attempted to deflect the issue again, saying there can be negatives in misinterpreting the data and getting “improper treatments.” Gunzenhauser followed by sympathizing with residents and asserting that DPH’s recommendations “are based on science.”
Repeated inquiries to DPH media representatives seeking any such scientific data and/or studies that such policy is allegedly based on have failed to receive a response that didn’t merely refer to the aforementioned circular answers. Such circular logic pops up again when attempting to query SoCal Gas and Sempra Energy representatives about their claims that there’s no longer any reason why Porter Ranch residents shouldn’t return to their homes, despite the fact that over 300 health complaints have been lodged since the well was sealed. DPH has also been in the middle of this contentious debate, with Sempra Utilities communications manager Melissa Bailey issuing a statement on May 13 asserting that DPH had declared there was no risk left related to the blowout.
“The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (DPH) has acknowledged that no barrier exists for residents to return home, and it is safe for residents to be home in Porter Ranch and the surrounding community… The data confirms what thousands of outdoor air samples have already demonstrated: there is no risk to public health related to the leak and it is, and has been, safe for residents who chose to relocate to return home,” Bailey’s statement asserted.
But examination of DPH’s statements on the matter reveals discrepancies. In a public health assessment published the same day as Bailey’s statement (May 13), DPH addressed the issue of metals in household dust at residents’ homes with a “fingerprint” indicating the common source of Alison Canyon’s well SS-25 (the source of the blowout.)
“While levels of these metals are not expected to pose a long‐term health risk, they may have been generated as a result of operations during the gas leak, and in turn may be contributing to the short‐term symptoms being observed,” the assessment read, noting that some residents were still experiencing headaches, nasal congestion, sore throat, respiratory complaints, nausea, dizziness, skin rashes and nosebleeds. “These symptoms commence upon returning to their homes and cease once they return to their temporary relocation housing…”
When asked how Sempra and SoCal Gas could claim there was “no risk to public health related to the leak in the community” when DPH’s assessment indicated otherwise, Sempra’s Bailey replied by referencing comments from DPH’s Gunzenhauser from another community meeting in which he claimed that “We believe that people can safely move back into their homes,” and “I don’t view that the presence of those metals should be a barrier for people moving back in.” These statements by Gunzenhauser apparently then suggest that DPH feels headaches, nosebleeds, nausea, dizziness, skin rashes and respiratory complaints do not constitute risk to public health.
Sempra’s Bailey also cited court declarations by environmental scientist Robert Ettinger of Geosyntec Consultants, a company hired by SoCal Gas to conduct air testing at Porter Ranch. Ettinger has worked at Geosyntec since 2003 with stated expertise in vapor intrusion to indoor air (interestingly preceded by a 14-year stint providing environmental technical support to the Shell Oil Company). Ettinger addressed DPH’s assessment that the metals “can cause respiratory and skin irritation and could be contributing to symptoms reported by residents” by asserting that “this statement is not scientifically supportable.”
“There is no scientific basis for DPH to state that the low concentrations that are below levels that may pose a chronic (long-term) health concern can potentially pose an acute (short-term) health concern,” Ettinger claimed. Ettinger’s declaration also asserted that “metals detected in dust in homes within the Porter Ranch neighborhood cannot be attributed to the Well SS-25 release.”
Whether true or false, the accusation by Ettinger regarding a lack of scientific basis for DPH’s assessment about the metals again suggests a potential gap between DPH’s assessments and the scientific basis the department has for making them. DPH’s May 13 public health assessment attributed review and interpretation by a multi‐disciplinary health workgroup “consisting of experts from the State Office of Environmental Health Hazard Evaluation (OEHHA), United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), California Environmental Protection Agency Air Resources Board (CARB), California Department of Public Health (CDPH), South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) and the Los Angeles County Fire ‐ Health Hazmat Division. US EPA and researchers from UCLA and UC Berkeley also provided guidance and technical assistance.”
As to the nebulous nature of the relationship between DPH and SoCal Gas, differences also arose regarding the issue of cleaning for residents homes that suggested a game of good cop/bad cop. In the latest legal battle over Porter Ranch, SoCal Gas tried to back out of a directive from DPH to provide specialized cleaning of all residents homes who requested it. But Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge John Wiley ruled on May 20 that the company must pay for the cleanings since it was responsible for “the nuisance” of the blowout and the contaminated dust it has generated, regardless of whether the metals pose a health threat.
Controversy continued, however, when DPH had to go back to court just days later to ask for an injunction to temporarily stop the cleaning, since SoCal Gas sent crews that “did not comply with the Public Health cleaning protocol,” according to DPH. Angelo Bellomo, DPH’s deputy director for health protection, also stated that the operation lacked adequate supervision and quality control. “If you’ve got dust and contaminants in the home and you don’t clean them properly, you can actually spread them in the home,” Bellomo told the LA Daily News.
“Nobody Really Understands What They’re Doing”
Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich minced no words in assessing the situation. “Once again, the Gas Co. has shown downright contempt for the court, Health Department rules and the victims of this disaster,” Antonovich said in a statement. Cleaning resumed shortly thereafter with SoCal Gas claiming that it was working “to clarify the County’s revised cleaning protocol for relocated Porter Ranch residents…”
“The regulatory system has totally collapsed and nobody really understands what they’re doing, nobody is really actually helping and taking control and taking leadership. They’re all just passing the buck,” Food & Water Watch’s Alexandra Nagy said of the mess in Porter Ranch. “They made SoCal Gas do relocation, but how many times did they have to go back to court to actually make SoCal Gas relocate people? How many thousands of people could still not get relocated because it was a SoCal Gas run system? So the whole regulatory system just gives full authority to SoCal Gas by making them manage the disaster.”
The issue of low-level contamination from oil and gas drilling causing ill health effects in surrounding neighborhoods underscores an ongoing situation across the country and especially around Los Angeles, where “thousands of active oil wells in the greater Los Angeles area are located near and among a dense population of more than 10 million people” (according to the Liberty Hill Foundation’s 2015 study “Drilling Down: The Community Consequences of Expanded Oil Development in Los Angeles”). The LA Times concurred in a May 25 editorial calling for all oil-drilling neighbors to receive the same treatment that Porter Ranch residents deserve.
“Now that health officials have evidence that chemicals associated with oil and gas drilling can accumulate in indoor dust and cause short-term effects even at low levels, they need to take seriously the complaints of residents living next to urban oil sites elsewhere and investigate whether they too are exposed to contamination in their homes. Regulators ought to be as attentive and vigilant to the impacts oil and gas operations have on neighbors throughout Los Angeles as they’ve been to the residents of Porter Ranch,” the LA Times editorial board concluded.
Which agency Los Angeles County residents can trust to lead such an effort remains a nebulous proposition.