Photo: Greg M. Schwartz

(This is the first part of a two-part series dealing with the aftermath of the massive methane leak at Porter Ranch. To read the second part, click here.)

Aftermath of Porter Ranch gas blowout pits residents against SoCal Gas, LA County DPH and a captured state regulatory system, in battle for justice

LOS ANGELES – Over 1,500 activists from all over California gathered at Los Angeles City Hall on May 14 as part of a global protest action encouraging humanity to “Break Free” from fossil fuels. A variety of speakers –  highlighted by leading climate justice activist and 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben – spoke about their stories opposing the greed and environmental crimes of fossil fuel companies. None delivered a more poignant moment than Jennifer Milbauer, a mother and resident of the Porter Ranch community in northwest Los Angeles that has suffered ill health effects ever since the blowout at Southern California Gas’ Aliso Canyon gas storage facility last October that spewed methane and other volatile organic compounds into the air uncontrollably until it was finally capped on February 18.

Jennifer Milbauer speaking at the Break Free rally in downtown LA, May 14, 2016. (Photo Credit: Greg Schwartz)

Jennifer Milbauer speaking at the Break Free rally in downtown LA, May 14, 2016. (Photo Credit: Greg Schwartz)

“It’s heartbreaking when your child tells you they’re scared to live in your home,” Milbauer told the crowd, speaking of how residents have still been experiencing various ailments even since the blowout was stopped. The blowout sent over 97,000 metric tons of methane into the air (the equivalent of annual exhaust emissions from nearly 600,000 cars, according to the journal Science), leading SoCal Gas to relocate some 8,000 residents. Over 300 more health complaints have been registered since residents started returning to their homes. Previously best known as the neighborhood where Steven Spielberg shot E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, Porter Ranch is now known for the worst accidental discharge of greenhouse gases in U.S. history.

“We have 4,000 people still out of their houses and when they come back they get headaches and nosebleeds… so I want to call on our elected officials… to stand up to the $11 billion beast that is SoCal Gas and shut it down! The time is now, we have to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels now, not in 30 years,” Milbauer said of the residents’ campaign to shut down the Aliso Canyon facility permanently. The gathering would go on to march to SoCal Gas’ downtown headquarters to rally for the closing of the facility.

SoCal Gas, the nation’s largest natural gas distribution company, aims to restart the facility as soon as it can. Sempra Energy, the San Diego-based parent company of SoCal Gas, estimated in early May that the blowout had cost the company $665 million. While the company has tried to intimidate politicians and the public by helping to author a report that warns of potential blackouts this summer if the facility can’t be made operational, energy expert Bill Powers disputes such claims.

Bill Powers

Bill Powers, Regional Energy Planner for San Diego

“The plans saying we need Aliso Canyon are bogus,” Powers said at a Save Porter Ranch community meeting on April 9. Powers referred to a report co-authored by SoCal Gas, the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) and others, saying it overestimated fuel needs by twice as much as local reliability requirements call for. He also said the report underestimated the capacity of other SoCal Gas storage facilities in the region.

Powers went on to label the CPUC as “a bad actor,” adding, “Whenever I see CPUC and related agencies on a report, it’s weak on facts.” A regional energy planner for the city of San Diego, Powers helped forge San Diego’s bold plan announced in 2015 to move to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. He said he also has a plan for how Los Angeles could deal with shutting down Aliso Canyon permanently.

Powers cited the Aliso Canyon blowout as just the latest in a chain of incidents – including the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion and 2012 San Onofre nuclear plant shutdown due to a faulty reactor – that reflect regulatory capture in California by the fossil fuel industry. Powers received further fuel for his argument at the end of May when Public Records Act (PRA) requests from Mike Aguirre of the California Independent System Operator Corporation (CASIO) revealed that two Sempra/SoCal Gas employees were on the Aliso Canyon risk assessment development team that authored the report saying the facility is needed (Dave Bisi, Gas Transmission Planning Department Manager and Roger Schwecke, Vice President, Transmission and Storage).

Equipment and machinery seen on a ridge above the SS25 natural gas well in the Southern California Gas Company's Aliso Canyon facility. (Photo Credit: Scott L. / Flickr)

Equipment and machinery seen on a ridge above the SS25 natural gas well in the Southern California Gas Company’s Aliso Canyon facility. (Photo Credit: Scott L. / Flickr)

“It appears from the PRA response that SoCal Gas was a de facto key member of the Technical Assessment Group and was assigned the critical role of justifying the need for Aliso Canyon with no skepticism or independent look by any of the other Technical Assessment Group members. SoCal Gas was given the green light to write its own ticket and it did,” Powers wrote in an email to Food & Water Watch, an environmental advocacy organization that has been working with the Save Porter Ranch campaign. “The endlessly repeated statement in the press and radio that SoCal could suffer from up to 14 days of blackouts this summer due to the loss of Aliso Canyon storage, identified as the state’s position, came directly from the entity that caused the Aliso Canyon blowout, at the invitation of the state. This is government enabling corporate misbehavior, not regulating or sanctioning it.”

Alexandra Nagy, a Southern California organizer with Food & Water Watch, says these revelations are a clear indicator of where Governor Jerry Brown’s allegiance lies.

Alexandra Nagy

Alexandra Nagy, Food and Water Watch

“If we had a stronger governor who was actually more of an advocate for the people than like a puppet for the industry, we would see more aggressive action to protect public health,” Nagy said. “And now that we know officially that it was SoCal Gas… that wrote the blackout [report]… we need the city to do its own independent study, we need them to hire a consultant who can actually give us the facts.”

Governor Brown’s ties to the fossil fuel industry are most notably illustrated by the fact that his sister Kathleen Brown has served as a paid board member of Sempra Energy since 2013 (earning over $188,000 annually while also owning about $400,000 of stock, according to federal filings.) This potential conflict of interest leads Nagy to question whether Brown is really interested in the facts about Aliso Canyon.

“We need to put so much more pressure on, because obviously Brown does not want that to happen,” Nagy said regarding an independent study of the facility and Southern California’s energy needs. “Now that we know this [part of the report saying Aliso Canyon is needed] came exclusively from the mouths of SoCal Gas, and if you’re going to continue to go along with it, now you look like just as much of a dirty crook as they do and you don’t wanna be in that situation.”

The Aliso Canyon site, as seen from the air. (Photo: Creative Commons)

The Aliso Canyon site, as seen from the air. (Photo: Creative Commons)

LA County Department of Public Health: Protecting Citizens From Industry or Vice Versa?

Some observers of Porter Ranch feel that further evidence of regulatory capture in California has become apparent in the actions of the LA County Department of Public Health (DPH). The role of DPH at Porter Ranch has been brought into question by residents, health experts and activists who find some of the department’s actions puzzling at best. A March 8 letter to local health providers from DPH’s Dr. Cyrus Rangan – director of the bureau of toxicology and environmental assessment – raised suspicion when it advised providers to look for “alternate etiologies other than air contamination” when examining sick patients as well as to avoid conducting toxicological tests. “These are not recommended and are unlikely to provide useful data for clinical evaluation of patients,” Rangan wrote, advising providers to call him instead if another cause for the symptoms could not be determined. Many residents took issue with Rangan’s letter.

“I think that’s way overstepping their bounds,” Save Porter Ranch co-founder Matt Pakucko said of DPH in an interview with the LA Daily News. “Telling doctors how to treat people and specifically telling them don’t look for toxins. Are you serious?”

Culver City-based neurologist Dr. Khin Khin Gyi expressed similar skepticism of DPH’s motives when she spoke to residents at the April 9 meeting. Dr. Gyi was brought in to advise residents on steps they should take to document the symptoms they’ve continued to experience, due to her previous experience with a similar situation involving polluted air from the Inglewood Oil Field in West Los Angeles that necessitated evacuations in 2006. She warned Porter Ranch residents they were dealing not just with the methane but also “the usual bad actors,” the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) also coming from Aliso Canyon since it started out as an oil well. Dr. Gyi said VOCs tend to bind to fat cells and tissue and then slowly release and “this is why we can expect the symptoms to continue,” even though the well had been sealed.

“I’ll cut to the chase, we’re all on our own,” Dr. Gyi said in regards to getting any meaningful help from DPH. When queried on the suspicious nature of Rangan’s March 8 letter telling health providers not to conduct toxicological testing, Dr. Gyi replied that she had previously run into obstacles with Rangan and DPH during the Inglewood Oil Field aftermath when Rangan would not permit headaches to be listed on a community health survey about residents’ symptoms.

The San Ardo Oil Field From The Coast Starlight. The San Ardo Oil Field is a large oil field in Monterey County, California, in the United States. (Photo Credit: Loco Steve / Flickr)

The San Ardo Oil Field, Monterey County, California, in the United States. (Photo Credit: Loco Steve / Flickr)

“So that told us right away that he was not on our side, not representing us, because headaches are a very important symptom to pay attention to,” Dr. Gyi noted. In an exclusive interview in mid-May, Dr. Gyi elaborated on her doubts about Rangan and DPH’s motives in dealing with environmental health disasters like the Inglewood Oil Field pollution and Aliso Canyon gas blowout.

“He was afraid that if he included headaches and dizziness,  it would actually point the smoking gun in the right direction,” Dr. Gyi said of Rangan. “I think he’s trying to suppress any information that might be coming out. The fact that they did their Inglewood study in 2011 after [the incident] occurred in 2006, tells me that he doesn’t want to know the truth, it’s pretty obvious. And he did the same thing not only to the Porter Ranch people [with the March 8 letter], he told the same spiel to the folks at the Jefferson site [an oil drilling site in downtown LA near the University of Southern California], the same thing. He washed his hands of the whole process and just gave them a very generic non-specific answer that was not helpful.”

Break Free LA, May 14, 2016. (Photo Credit: Jed Wolf)

Break Free LA, May 14, 2016. (Photo Credit: Jed Wolf)

When asked if the March 8 directive to Porter Ranch health providers not to conduct toxicological testing would seem to indicate that Rangan and DPH were primarily motivated by protecting SoCal Gas from potential future liability, Dr. Gyi answered affirmatively. “That’s what the evidence would suggest, and what that behavior would suggest, yes,” Dr. Gyi said.

Next: The Sisyphean quest for straight answers from LA County DPH and SoCal Gas

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