Don’t Look, Don’t Find, Don’t Tell…Then Cover Up

San Fernando Valley Residents find out at Aliso Canyon town hall how their health was put at risk

More than 200 residents filled the room at the Freedom Center in Chatsworth to watch a presentation given by Dr. Jeffrey Nordella about polytoxic exposure from the Aliso Canyon gas storage wells, that caused the largest gas blowout in US history in 2015. Several more hundreds watched the live feed on Facebook.

A theme that kept being repeated is that SoCalGas, the County Dept of Public Health (DPH), and other public agencies pushed the idea that residents’ symptoms were due to exposure to methane and mercaptans. And that there was no risk of developing long term health effects from these chemicals. This message contradicted the Prop 65 warning inserted into every bill about significant exposures to chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm from the Aliso Canyon facility.

Dr. Nordella explained how he became curious in looking into the source of exposure when many of his patients were coming in with unusual combinations of symptoms in the fall of 2015. As with many of the residents who lived near Aliso, he disagreed that it was just the methane and the odorants, added to the gas, that were responsible for the symptoms which included nosebleeds, headaches, nausea, and respiratory problems.

He presented the data from phases 1 and 2, which were disclosed at prior town halls in 2017 and 2018. One welcomed result of the phase first discussed in October 2017, was that the Department of Water and Power started testing its water supply for lithium.

One slide from the Saturday’s presentation showed the known toxic chemicals that were described by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), one agency that continues to underplay the health risks to residents.

Among the problems with determining how much the emissions from Aliso’s wells harm residents is that the literature and chemical info list possible effects from individual chemicals, but cannot explain what risks exist from combinations of several chemicals. Among these sources regarding individual chemicals include Pubchem and ToxTown (both are from the US National Library of Medicine for the National Institutes of Health) and the Chemical Book. Added in this equation are the numerous unknown chemicals that add to the “witch’s brew” that came into the environment of the affected communities, ever since October 23,2015, and possibly even before that notorious blowout.

Because of the lack of information regarding the chemicals, Dr. Nordella questions the continued message given by the Dept. of Public Health that residents should not be concerned about long term health effects.

One organ system of particular concerned is the respiratory system as many of the chemicals in the emissions can be inhaled. Inhalation provides a more efficient method of entering the bloodstream than, say, medications taken orally due to the lack of enzymes that can degrade any toxins.

Of particular concern for this community are hydrogen sulfide and silica, which are used by oil and gas companies. Another concern comes from the presence of hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), the smallest of which, Ultrafine Particles (UFPs) do not fall under regulatory standards.

One chemical that had been found in Porter Ranch and surrounding communities, crude oil, is a highly toxic mixture of carcinogens, neurotoxins, and other toxic compounds Among its harmful components is benzene. Given that SoCalGas and the DPH knew there was a dissemination of crude oil in the community, Dr.Nordella wonders why health officials didn’t call for distribution of P100 masks that would filter out the oil.

Dr. Nordella explained why many resident have what is now commonly called the “Aliso Cough,” and how the chemical damage done to the lungs can lead to related conditions of asthma, pneumonitis, and pneumonia.

Also discussed was an article published in June 2019 by Diane Gonzalez of UCLA, which examined how particulate matter and crude oil spread hazardous metals throughout Porter Ranch in levels above what the US Environmental ProtectionAgency (US EPA) considers safe. It explained how the topology of the area affected the distribution of toxins unequally. It also noted that a chemical analysis of the particulate matter was never conducted. In addition, it was suggested that further investigation should be done.

An earlier study by UCLA researchers in 2016 also advised additional testing. That led to the DPH initiating the Leighton Study, taking samples inside homes in Porter Ranch.

Dr. Nordella pointed out the department didn’t test for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) including benzene, even though the UCLA study found that chemical high risk levels in the air samples taken. In addition, 96 per cent of the test homes tested positive for acrolein, another toxic chemical, associated with an increased risk of lung cancer.

Another action that Dr. Nordella wanted the town hall attendees to know about was when DPH came with SoCalGas in March 2016 to investigate complaints of oily spots at a community park. Instead of sending the gathered samples to an independent lab, DPH allowed the material to be sent to a lab of SoCalGas’s choosing.

Another study initiated by DPH in 2016 was the wind study. Among the findings was that oily spots containing heavy metals were found in the areas where health complaints were reported. This report was completed by November of 2016, but was not released to the public until October 30, 2018. Not just that the report was suspiciously delayed in being released, but Dr. Nordella questioned some of the methodology used, including setting the trigger level for collecting air samples to when methane was at 5.0ppm, when threshold level was considered to be 2.2ppm. Many of the samples detected benzene, sometimes in levels above what the California EPA considers to be safe. Dr. Nordella explained that the World Health Organization (WHO), an agency with the United Nations, has determined that there isn’t a safe level for benzene.

This study’s report was released to the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council on October 30, 2018, just as that body was sending out a letter to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) in connection to the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) Title V permit renewal which referenced crude oil tanks. In response, the then-president of the CPUC sent an email that claimed the community should already know about the existence of crude oil. About four-and-a-half months later, Angelo Bellomo of the DPH brought up the crude oil mentioned in the Title V permit in a letter to Bret Lane of SoCalGas. But back in three years before, DPH’s Interim Director at the time, Cynthia Harding had reported to the County Board of Supervisors about the crude oil found in the community. Residents have to be wondering about this strange timeline.

Dr. Nordella then brought up the infamous directives that DPH sent to local health providers on January 22 and March 8, 2016, that discouraged doctors from performing toxicology tests, including biomonitoring, which would have established that resident were exposed to chemicals such as benzene. As he pointed out, these communications presented a legal problem for plaintiffs, and interfered with the physician/patient relationship to the point of causing doctor to not document a potential association between a patient’s symptoms and air contamination. The second directive, authored by Dr. Cyrus Rangan, used the word “requested.” In addition, Dr. Nordella recounted a visit from a DPH nurse, who tried to persuade him to follow the directive, and then he had to explain to her it was an inappropriate action on her part before he showed her the door.

The doctor next discussed the firefighters’ lawsuit filed against SoCalGas in January 2019. The first responders contacted him in May 2018 about symptoms they were having, that were similar to those the residents were experiencing. They said they were misled as to their concerns when they were visited by representatives of SoCalGas and DPH while the blowout was occurring.

Also mentioned was how schools, especially the one located within two miles of the gas storage facility, were affected by the misleading information regarding what was causing the symptoms. Children are more vulnerable as they have a higher basal metabolism and a smaller body mass that makes them more susceptible to toxins. It became obvious that students at schools within five miles were having increased health problems. But despite the lead toxicologist handling the Aliso disaster, Dr. Rangan, was also a pediatrician, the LA Unified School District continued to be given misinformation about what was causing the nosebleeds, headaches, and other symptoms. Finally the two Porter Ranch schools were relocated during the 2015/2016 winter break.

Another issue brought up was the County’s attempt to stay the reopening of the gas storage facility in July 2017. Dr. Nordella suggested that the counsel for the County should have addressed the health issues but didn’t serve SoCalGas with a subpoena demanding documentation of the chemicals used by the utility.

[Per my series “Incompetent, Corrupt, or Impotent: How public agencies mishandled the Aliso Canyon disaster in the San Fernando Valley,” at the March 31, 2016 meeting of the Porter Ranch Community Advisory Committee, Public Health representatives (Katie Butler and Angelo Bellomo were present from the DPH) said they can use the “legal route” to get the data from SoCalGas.]

As for the $1-million study that the AQMD was going to undertake (this was the result of a smoke-filled room agreement between lawyers for SoCalGas and the AQMD governing board), Dr. Nordella said that he was elected by the PRNC to be on the Health Study Technical Advisory Group (HSTAG). But he found himself in disagreement with the group as they wanted to spend the money on repeating the modeling that was done in the wind study. He also caught Dr. Rangan in a lie about the still inaccessible wind study. He sent the other members a proposal for a medical surveillance study (MSS) using CBCs taken of residents in the area, but didn’t hear back from anyone in the group. He decided to pursue this study without the HSTAG.

The MSS that Dr. Nordella started in the summer of 2018, showed patterns of changes known as dysplasia which can lead to hematological cancers. There were approximately 12,000 CBC’s collected for the 91326 area code and approximately 7,300 CBCs in three control groups (Malibu, Lancaster, and Camarillo, areas selected as not being near oil/gas storage operations).

The findings indicated a statistically average lower for white blood cell counts, red blood cell counts, and platelet counts compared to the control group. The changes that were found show bone marrow suppression.

A leading benzene expert assessed the findings as showing “chronic benzene exposure.”

Dr. Nordella talked about how he was blocked from getting more data, especially for those under 18 years of age, from Quest, which possibly would have provided more empirical proof of exposure.

Then he ended his presentation, saying that residents should want to know who has been manipulating the public agencies from doing their job to protect the health of the residents. That we need to find out who has been the Master Puppeteer that has been making sure the concealment, deception, and fraudulent behavior has kept public agencies from performing their due diligence.

After emcee Alex Nagy, the California Director of Food and Water Watch, introduced the Aliso Moms Alliance, candidates for office who were present, and members of the Community Advisory Group for the DPH health study (at least 11 of the 19 members were present), a question and answer period followed.

Some of the questions asked by attendees concerned additional exposure to toxic particulates due to the recent Saddleridge Fire (Alex had made an announcement that another fire broke out in Porter Ranch at this time, but it was quickly put out by the LAFD). One resident, whose house was one of the home tested for the Leighton Study, said the wipe taken of his window sill was more of a dab, and much smaller than what Dr. Nordella had shown the audience. Another mentioned how her attorney discouraged her from getting her family tested. When asked if he had been contacted by any attorneys, Dr. Nordella said one firm did contact him, but as he wanted to stay independent, he told them no.

Diane Gonzalez who led the UCLA study about fugitive emissions that was released this year, explained that they measured a “general methane” but isolated it from urban sources at a level above 2.3 (2.2ppm is considered an “ambient background” level),

Two residents talked about how health issues seriously affected family members. Kelly, who lost her mother this summer to multiple myeloma, told about how DPH didn’t step up. Another one mentioned that her daughter is fighting for her life due to low platelet levels.

When asked about the ongoing $25-million health study that DPH is administering, Dr. Nordella said, “My personal opinion: I would take the $25-million, recruit organizations out of California, and maybe even out of the US.” He suggested the WHO would be a possible choice. He mentioned the some bad actors involved in the AQMD $1-million study will be serving on the Scientific Oversight Committee, the group that will be coming up with the scope of the study, and there’s a need for independent voices on it. He also mentioned the missing information about the chemicals, and if that isn’t available, why bother to do the study.

The subject of former governor Jerry Brown’s “ten year deadline for shutting down Aliso Canyon came up.” The resident asked if it’s possible to shorten that time. Dr. Nordella mentioned that the corruption and lobbyists. He said he was dismayed at his meeting with Congress members Brad Sherman and Bob Hertzberg, adding that Hertzberg said, ”You got to bring them something to get something.” The doctor suggested residents hold their elected representatives accountable for bring legislation to affect change, and vote them out if they aren’t responding.

One resident was told by the AQMD in 2010 that there were acceptable levels of non-carcinogenic benzene, but Dr.Nordella pointed out that there isn’t any such thing as non- carcinogenic benzene. Another resident mentioned that the venting from the wells even before the blowout that could have emitted chemicals.

Also mentioned were leaks coming from the ground, other than from just the wells, the many mysterious spot fires since the Saddleridge fire hit Porter Ranch (air testing did find levels of benzene from the fires on SoCalGas property. Dr.Nordella noted that once that was found out, “They put dirt on it. I don’t think that’s proper science.”), the open pit dumping of rust inhibitors and other toxic material at Aliso and Limekiln Canyons as well as water contamination with radiation from the uranium from shale gas fracking from the origin of the gas that is stored at Aliso.

When someone asked if anyone from the DPH was present, Dr. Nordella introduced Dr. Paul Simon, who he said hadn’t been involved with the Aliso disaster until recently (he’s part of the DPH team for the health study). Dr. Simon said that “Going forward, we want to do the right thing.” He added that the DPH is not going to be doing the study, and he recognizes that the community “has zero trust” in his agency.

Dr. Nordella did acknowledge that there’s a rarity of doctors who are knowledgeable about this kind of exposure because this kind of event rarely happens. He does say for biomonitoring purposes, there are tests that can be done including blood analysis, bone marrow testing, a chem panel, CBCs, and if the respiratory system seems involved, chest x-rays.

After the Q&A was finished, Alex Nagy presented some action items for residents to take to help affect change. She said, “We want every single one of you to get engaged. I know that’s a big ask. Trust me, there’s a lot of people who have been doing this work for four years and we need your support.”

She asked everyone to text NEWSOM to 69866, and then asked everyone to sign the petition at the Save Porter Ranch table.

She said that each resident should demand Governor Newsom to shut Aliso down, demand a federal investigation into California regulators, and demand that DPH call for a health emergency because of these findings that show the facility is not safe and needs to be shut down (she mentioned how DPH can shut down nail salons and restaurants who are posing a health risk, so why not Aliso).

As for the health study that DPH is getting underway, residents should demand that oversight be given to the National Institute of Health or the World Health Organization; and that DPH issue its subpoena power to collect and share with Dr. Nordella and his team the raw, unredacted or altered data that he needs, which is CBC data from Quest Diagnostics and the National Cancer registry information for the past 20 year. In addition, residents should ask DPH to clean house of any bad actors and bring in a new management team. To ensure that the health study has minimal political influence, residents should insist that the Scientific Oversight Committee be made up of a majority of independent members to offset the seven state agency appointed members, that the Community Advisory Group members be made up of those from the affected communities, and be selected by the existing members, without interference from DPH, and that residents should attend the CAG meetings.

There seemed to be a consensus among those who watched the program.

Granada Hills resident, who’s also a member of the CAG, Melissa Messer said, “I was shocked at the results of the bloodwork for PR residents. As a group, their blood cell production was suppressed.”

Porter Ranch resident Jon Teboe said about the presentation, “The biggest takeaway from the town hall for me is that LA County Supervisor Barger has had subpoena power from Day 1. She can subpoena Sempra Energy/SoCal Gas and make them disclose what chemicals they are exposing us to! What is she waiting for?”

Here is the report that was presented at the town hall:

Finally using her J-school degree for good. #CountdownToShutDown2020 Aliso Canyon