By Rosemary Jenkins
A few days ago, the extended Porter Ranch community had the opportunity to meet with the independent judiciary panel that is under the umbrella of the South Coast Air Quality Management District. The purpose was the abatement-ask for the ongoing toxic gas exposure from Aliso Canyon.
The panel is very much like a court in that the five judges will make the final decision as to how to hold Sempra SoCal Gas accountable for the ongoing plumes being emitted from its well (SS 25) that are poisoning the residents in the region. Each person who offered testimony had to be sworn in first—just like any courtroom procedure. Once all testimony is heard (then and during future opportunities—stay tuned), the panel will review all the evidence presented and make a final decision shortly thereafter as to how this issue will be resolved.
The meeting was well-attended with an overflow crowd, eager to express their anguish and ready to hear what options will eventually be part of the settlement. At least 75-80 spoke over several hours, some brought to tears because of the heart-wrenching experiences from which so many are suffering.
Just about all of the elected representatives in this area (and many seeking office) were in attendance and spoke forcefully on this issue. The principal accusation is that Sempra/SCG is guilty of gross negligence, in part because of the lack of a pro-active approach with sufficient contingency plans.
Aliso Canyon is one of four natural gas fields in Southern California that provides gas to 14 power plants for residential and commercial heating and cooking purposes. So far, there have been seven attempts to seal the leak, all of which failed. The goal now is to locate the source of that leak and seal it permanently. The company has brought in two of the world’s most expert engineering firms which handle this kind of problem. Despite all efforts, some of which were unnecessarily delayed, it will take several months before we can hope to see a final resolution to this catastrophic incident that is affecting so many in so many different ways.
In the meantime, thousands of residents (over 12,000 to date) are being relocated to home and apartment rentals. Unfortunately, many greedy landlords are gouging these already devastated and vulnerable temporary tenants with outlandishly high rentals—$8000 a month is not uncommon. (Sempra has agreed to pay these sums but rentals are becoming scarce as many landlords want permanent renters as opposed to those who will leave after only a few months.)
Properties in this area have already lost 20-25% of the values that they held prior to this incident. Many seniors have looked to their homes as nest eggs for their future post-retirement and for too many, that is gone or nearly so.
Many businesses have been severely impacted as well. Since there are so many other options for consumers, these many commercial concerns are not being patronized the way they were prior to the October 23, 2015, report on the leak. All companies in the area are experiencing substantial financial losses, and some are facing bankruptcy altogether.
Over 2000 students and staff have been relocated to temporary school facilities. As a teacher myself, I know that this action by itself would pose a nightmare with long-term adverse effects for everyone involved.
Not to be forgotten is the ongoing battle with the Termo oil fields which are adjacent to the gas reservoir. Its request for an additional 12 wells, especially at this time, flies in the face of reason. Further fracking (which the company has implemented on that site but claims it will no longer perform—though all such drilling is a type of fracking) can lead to undermining the infrastructure of the entire community and possibly lead to fissures and even an earthquake (based upon current studies related to such drilling procedures).
Speakers were frustrated and resentful, to say the least, because so many of them have been dealing with a company whose responses demonstrated its disdain, condescension, disrespect, insensitivity, untrustworthiness, obfuscation, and lack of transparency. It became apparent to many that this is a company that has been negligent and quite likely guilty of criminal wrongdoing.
The company has claimed it has been working within the rules governing its operations there. The regulations state that no home can be within a certain number of feet of the operation but the homes are within 300 feet and their residents are feeling the effects of the exposure. Sempra/ SCG deemed that the wells there were not critical as regards to safety but certainly never took into consideration the effect of the strong winds common to the area that can and do carry pollutants from this gas field to great distances (well beyond Porter Ranch).
On top of that, the company admitted it chose not to replace the faulty safety valve at that site. Had it done so, this problem most likely would never have occurred.
Thus, the AQMD judicial panel is being asked to mandate Sempra/SCG to cease all regular operations at the site and to comply with all rules relating to gas-operation functions. Furthermore, once all the violations are determined, it is hoped that Sempra/SCG will be asked to empty and collect the gas from this well and treat that gas so it can be brought up to code (eliminating the polluting factors), to enhance well inspections, and to perform health studies and act upon the results to make the community whole again.
Sempra/SCG is not alone, however, in responsibility and accountability for what is going on. OSHA’a standards for such operations have been inadequate, despite numerous appeals by individuals and organizations to correct those shortcomings. What many are witnessing now is the presence of carcinogens seeping not only into their communities but into their homes and businesses.
What is adding to the damage is the ongoing problems with the nearby Sunshine Canyon dumping ground about which the residents have for years been grieving to no real satisfaction.
What is to be done after the fact is the big question?
There are any number of organizations that have been trying for years to inform various constituencies and to move them to action. Neither our governmental agencies nor the gas company will be left off the hook. Every agency that has even some involvement and responsibility for maintaining safe conditions and cleaning up afterwards will be held accountable.
The convergence of all these issues proves that putting off to tomorrow what should be done today is an appropriate adage. The community is suffering because of that kind of procrastination. We must no longer put up with that kind of indifference and insensitivity. For too many, the consequences may be irreversible but for most of us, we have the opportunity (on which we cannot turn our backs) to change this kind of status quo indifference and negligence.
The SCAQMD’s judicial panel, the various law firms representing the victims, Save Porter Ranch, and Food and Water Watch (to name only the major actors) are working diligently to make certain this tragedy cannot repeat itself. It is too bad that we wait until tragedy happens instead of acting on our concerns before that transpires.
The next meeting:
AQMD Judicial Panel, Second Meeting Granada Hills High School 10535 Zelzah, Granada Hills 91344 Saturday, January 26, 2015, 9 a.m.