Prior to October 2015, many homeowners in the Porter Ranch neighborhood of Los Angeles were unaware that they lived next door to one of the largest natural gas storage facilities in the nation. Against the copper hills of the northern San Fernando Valley, their gated clusters of multi-story villas, arranged on neat curves and cul-de-sacs, probably felt worlds away from toxins and industry.
Then came the largest methane gas leak in U.S. history. A 61-year-old wellhead, 8,500 feet underground at the Southern California Gas Company’s Aliso Canyon storage site, cracked, spewing gas into the atmosphere at astonishing pressure. Since that day, life in Porter Ranch has turned on its head. More than three months later, the gas company has been unable to plug the leak.
"I'm unaware of anything of this magnitude that has happened before," Brian Panish, an attorney for a group of Porter Ranch homeowners, told the L.A. Times in January. "There's no study to know what the long-term effects are. What about some of these children? Do you think people's homes are going to be worth the same?"
Though methane is odorless and nontoxic, the sulfuric smell of a common additive, mercaptan, has sickened Porter Ranch residents. Their symptoms include vomiting, rashes, headaches, dizziness, and bloody noses. Thousands have now been displaced (the gas company has been ordered by the city to provide temporary housing).
Residents are also worried about levels of benzene, which can be a component of natural gas and is known to cause leukemia, in the air. Government officials have leapt into action, volleying lawsuits, penalties, and stern language at the utility, and stepping up air quality monitoring. At least 25 personal injury lawsuits have been filed by Porter Ranch homeowners. Hundreds of residents are calling for the entire facility to be shut down permanently—a move that state commissioners might support.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit aren’t the first to point out weaknesses in the city’s handling of oil and gas extraction. An October 2015 investigation by the Los Angeles Times found “an apparent lack of follow-through on [the] operating conditions” that the city had imposed on several drilling companies, including AllenCo, and a lack of coordination between the city and the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which receives complaints and monitors air.
Representatives from the Department of Planning say that they cannot comment on pending litigation. Sam Atwood, media relations manager of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, says that the agency has been strengthening existing rules around emissions and especially nuisance odors, which he says constitute the majority of the complaints it receives. “I’d say we’ve made a lot of progress,” he says. “I think we’ve seen fewer complaints as a result.”
It bears mentioning the EPA has no set standards for benzene as an air pollutant, so it’s not something that the AQMD specifically monitors with drillers. Atwood says that he is not aware of any one drilling facility that has exceeded the state toxicology agency’s standards for general cancer risk.
A hope for new standards
For those fighting for equal protection from the health effects of drilling, odor protections from the AQMD are simply not enough. The city’s full-blown response to the Porter Ranch gas leak, compared to its seeming unwillingness to enforce even its own stipulations on oil and gas operators elsewhere, feels like more of the same racial and economic discrimination.
”It is no secret that communities of color are the frontline to industry, so why aren’t [government agencies] listening to our rallies, press releases, and concerns with the same attention as Porter Ranch?” asks Hernandez.
The question is relevant for Los Angeles and the country, especially in the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Even Flint’s mayor believes that environmental racism played a part in the failure of government to protect the safety of her city’s drinking water supply. Now, that’s resulted in widespread tragedy, with 10 dead from a Legionnaire’s outbreak likely linked to tainted water and children’s blood-lead levels through the roof.
If anything good can come out Flint, it’s government reform. In Los Angeles, the scale and visibility of the Porter Ranch disaster could and should act as yet another wake-up call for regulators working in less-visible neighborhoods. No one in South L.A. is arguing that Porter Ranch residents should get anything less than the response they’ve received. They just want to be treated fairly.
”We support the residents of Porter Ranch to shut down that facility and protect their families,” says Limón. “But we also hope that the situation will set new precedents for the standards required of all oil and gas operators, across Los Angeles.”
Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. Her work also appears in the Atlantic, Sierra, Los Angeles, GOOD, the L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.