Incompetent, Corrupt, or Impotent: How public agencies mishandled the Aliso Canyon disaster in the San Fernando Valley

Photo by Rick Canter

Part 6

Recap of Part Five: The first stage of the health study, an oversight hearing, a health town hall, a threatening fire, the trend toward 100% electrification

RESIDENTS SHOW UP TO DEMAND RESTITUTION

After several previous hearings concerning restitution for residents living near the Aliso Canyon gas facility, another courtroom session occurred on January 24, 2020.

This saga regarding restitution started in September 2016, when SoCalGas pleaded no contest to a charge of failing to timely report the massive problem occurring at the gas storage site for three days. As a result, SoCalGas was given a $4 million fine and was ordered to install and maintain a methane monitoring system at the site.

The County District Attorney’s office not only let off SoCalGas with this slap on the wrist, but also cut off residents from being able to seek reparation allowed by state law.

At stake are the victims’ right to collect restitution as delineated in Article I, Section 28(c) of the California constitution. Currently the right to restitution is protected by Marsy’s Law, otherwise known as the California Victims’ Bill of Rights which was approved by voters in 2008.

As victims of the crime that SoCalGas had pleaded to, residents should have been able to file for restitution. In July 2019, a three-judge panel ruled that residents can seek restitution, but only on the gas company’s three-day delay in reporting the leak to agencies. Then on October 4th, the newly assigned judge introduced herself and scheduled the next hearing.

Residents await hearing. Photo by Heidi Tortorici

For the January 2020 hearing, 70 residents, many sporting red “victim” ribbons, packed the courtroom, with several more not able to get a seat inside.

During the hearing, the residents’ lawyers played a recording made by Porter Ranch resident Matt Pakucko of an early morning phone call he made on October 26. 2015 to SoCalGas, asking about the strong odors he was experiencing. As on the calls he made during the previous three days, he was told there was no problem.

According to the initial brief filed by lawyers representing the residents, SoCalGas failed to report the problem for three days, and also failed to collect any samples of any potentially hazardous substances at that time. In a deposition, SoCalGas executive Paul Smith, said that only after news reports began airing about how those living near the facility were getting sick, that the utility finally reported the leak to agencies.

The lawyers representing the residents insisted that proper notice would have allowed residents to take actions to reduce their exposure, including sealing off their homes and cars, wearing air masks, and, if they could, leaving the area. Eventually, some residents had to replace contaminated clothing and furniture.

SoCalGas claimed it had a “reasonable belief that the release or threatened release poses no significant present or potential hazard to human health and safety, property or the environment.”

Post hearing press conference. Photo by Heidi Tortorici

After the hearing, some who had been negatively affected spoke to the media, including Patricia Islikaplan and Kelly Browne, who both lost loved ones from diseases they believed were caused by the Aliso emissions.

Some weeks later, lawyers representing residents filed a motion for reconsideration. The March 9th motion asked for the court to reconsider the victim’s claims. A medical expert had concluded that there was a need for benzene testing of residents to establish the level of damage. After sending blood samples from five residents for analysis, the expert told the plaintiff lawyers that all five “suffered from injurious exposures to benzene.”

Another point of contention regarding the restitution case centered around whether LA County Fire made a site visit on October 24, 2015. The attorneys referred to a deposition taken in February 2020 which mentioned that a standard report about a visit was not created for that date.

Link to my article from January 2020.

Link to the restitution brief filed on behalf of residents.

The case number for Crump v Superior Court of the State of California for the County of Los Angeles is B292786.

SOCALGAS LAWYERS CONTINUED TO PLAY KEEP AWAY WITH DISCOVERY

In September 2019, the judge overseeing the civil cases against SoCalGas had determined the defense attorneys had provided insufficient privilege logs.

As the defense lawyers continued to play games with discovery requests, LA Superior Court Judge Carolyn Kuhl revisited the attorneys’ actions and ruled on February 20th that they were improperly withholding information regarding 197,513 documents. She fined the gas company and Sempra Energy $525,610 for their “repeated failure to provide sufficient justification for the withholding of thousands of supposedly privileged documents.” She also determined that the attorneys’ actions affected 94 depositions taken prior to November 1, 2019, and ruled that the plaintiff attorneys can reopen those depositions.

According to the ruling, “sanctions are warranted in light of Defendants’ abuse of the discovery process.”

This latest action against SoCalGas is just part of a pattern regarding requests for information and legal documents.

As part of this lawsuit, SoCalGas was served a subpoena for documents regarding AECOM, a consulting company, which had provided technical information for the Aliso Canyon Turbine Replacement Project. Several meetings between the lawyers on both sides were conducted about whether some of these documents were privileged. But the judge ruled that SoCalGas had failed to prove many of the documents could be excluded under client-attorney privilege.

The California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) requested information about chemicals used at the site, but never received a complete list, as mentioned in its 2018 report Long-Term Viability of Underground Natural Gas Storage in California: An Independent Review of Scientific and Technical Information.” Only information about hydrogen sulfide and mercaptans was provided.

When the order instituting investigation (OII) was opened by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) in 2019 into whether SoCalGas should be sanctioned for the blowout, its Safety and Enforcement Division (SED) listed 330 violations in its opening testimony. Four of the violations concerned documents requested by Blade Energy for the blowout’s root cause analysis. Each of these violations concerned data dumps by SoCalGas, which delayed the Blade Energy’s report to be finalized.

WILL THE CITY SUPPORT SHUTTING ALISO DOWN?

Council member John Lee introduced two resolutions concerning Aliso in 2019. The first one was submitted the day before the 4th anniversary. It asked the City’s Petroleum and Natural Gas Safety Administrator to pull together a “detailed report” in thirty days on the status of various reports, all of which are available online, and the investigations being conducted by the CPUC.

This motion was referred to the City Council’s Energy, Climate Change, and Environmental Justice Committee, which voted on December 3rd in a consent motion. The City Council passed it on December 12th.

In late November, after criticism was voiced in the community about this resolution, Lee met with residents and activists seeking feedback on a second resolution. This one would support Governor Newsom’s November 18th letter asking the CPUC to expedite the closing of the site. After including only a few of the group’s recommendations, the council member submitted the new resolution in December, which was referred to the Rules, Elections & Intergovernmental Relations Committee.

Eight weeks after the first resolution was passed, the City of Los Angeles’ Office of Petroleum and Natural Gas Administration and Safety released the Aliso Canyon Storage Facility Update. According to the resolution, it was to be a compilation of various reports regarding Aliso Canyon. Among the list was the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR)’s Comprehensive Safety Review of the Aliso Wells, the 2018 Aliso Canyon Consent Decree, DOGGR’s Geologic,Seismologic, and Geo-mechanical Hazards Report, the CPUC investigation into the SoCalGas operations at Aliso, the CPUC investigation into minimizing or eliminating the use of Aliso, the feasibility of a city-funded independent health study, and the current withdrawal protocol.

The report mentioned the SoCalGas monitoring system, but didn’t mention that this system was ordered through a court settlement and not as any altruism on the part of the utility. The city department failed to look at the shortcomings of the gas company’s system (the tendency for the system to go offline, usually overnight, and the public nuisance report given to SoCalGas after the South Coast Air Quality Management Division(AQMD) discovered that the gas company had set its monitors to private while a 66.6ppm leak was occurring on December 18, 2017).

The report’s heading about the consent decree refers to fence-line monitoring but inexplicably only referred to the current SoCalGas monitors, and didn’t explain the air monitoring system that would be funded by the consent decree.

Much of the section on the consent decree focused on the methane mitigation, but didn’t mention the controversy swirling around the dairy digester project, which didn’t directly benefit the victims of the blowout.

After discussing the health study that was funded by the settlement, the report mentioned AQMD’s $1-million health study, but failed to provide any context. In reality, this “study” was a result of a lawsuit AQMD filed against SoCalGas in 2016 for failing to comply with the January 23, 2016, abatement order, which required the utility to set up a health study. In December 2017, residents told AQMD staff in a meeting that the amount would not fund anything close to a suitable health study. The Health Study Technical Advisory Group (HSTAG) that was formed, met just once, and the RFP process by the agency didn’t yield any possible research teams.

(After the consent decree allocated funds for a health study, the AQMD reported, “staff polled the HSTAG members to inquire whether they would be supportive of revising the scope of the health study funded by SCAQMD to streamline efforts, and sent the HSTAG members a revised draft of the RFP. In September 2018, a majority of the HSTAG members expressed their support of the revised scope, and no members expressed disapproval.”)

The Geologic, Seismologic, and Geo-mechanical Hazard Report study stated that Aliso “withstood the 1994 Northridge earthquake,” but didn’t mention that well 4–0 collapsed during the shaking. The study was actually put together by SoCalGas and experts it had hired, including AECOM. Many residents remember that the quake ruptured a gas line in Granada Hills, resulting in a fire that destroyed many homes. Other post-quake fires, notably in 1906 in San Francisco and in 2019 in Ridgecrest, occurred due to ruptured gas lines.

One thing to note: the city report underrepresented some of the points that were made about seismic risk in the SoCalGas report.

But a differing opinion (not in the LA City’s report) came from Dr. Matthew d’Alessio, of Cal State University Northridge’s Dept. of Geological Sciences. He gave a presentation to the Joint Oversight Hearing with the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee and the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management on the Aliso Canyon disaster in August 2019. His video did compliment the report that SoCalGas put together for DOGGR, but also pointed out some shortcomings. For example, he said that in some of the modeling, the study didn’t take into account changes to rock permeability due to quakes which can loosen old fractures and create new ones.

One conclusion that Dr. d’Alessio made was that even though the odds for a worst-case scenario might be low (perhaps 10 percent), there was the possibility that many of the wells could suffer damage at once that can cause eight times the emissions as the 2015 blowout, which had resulted from just one damaged well.

This is his video discussing the SoCalGas seismic report.

The LA City’s summary of the Blade Energy root cause analysis report quoted, “since the leak, the CPUC and DOGGR have taken aggressive steps to prevent a similar leak from occurring again, including DOGGR’s stringent new regulations for all underground natural gas storage reservoirs. Enacted immediately after the leak began and made permanent on October 1, 2018, the regulations ensure that no single point of failure in a well can cause a release of gas into the atmosphere.” Unfortunately, this statement doesn’t consider the high risk due to wildfires and earthquakes.

The Blade Energy discussed in its seismic supplement the collapse of well 4–0. It noted that the well failure wasn’t discovered until April 12th, almost four months after the Northridge quake.

Regarding the OII looking into minimizing or eliminating the use of Aliso’s gas storage facility, the city’s report said that CPUC ended up performing the modeling, when in fact SoCalGas conducted the hydraulic modeling.

The report also mentioned the current push for decarbonization statewide, including some ongoing pilot plans helping communities to get electric appliances such as heat pumps, which could help reduce gas demand and decrease the need for Aliso.

The last part of the city’s study touched on the possibility of the city taking on a health study. The report said “public health experts” were consulted, but didn’t point out who these experts were. Suggested was an “Atmospheric Transport Modeling and Exposure modeling.” The possible cost listed was approximately $100,000 to $300,000 per model.

Also mentioned was a “birth outcome study”, but added there would need to be a sufficient sample size of those exposed during the time period of the blowout. Also mentioned was a look at “medical records, emergency room visits and cardiovascular events.”

One has to wonder if these “experts” knew about the December 14, 2017, Health Study Scoping Community Hearing held by AQMD, at which residents provided reasons why the above plans were unacceptable.

The conclusion of the City report was that this should be a joint effort with the county. Of course, this came out before the pandemic caused an economic crisis for the city, which would preclude funding these studies.

In essence, the Petro Administrator’s report was mostly a rehash of these various reports without any guidance about how the city can start a conversation to get the facility closed down.

This report was released without any fanfare by John Lee nor the media.

FOURTH YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF ALISO MILESTONE NOTED BY COMMUNITY MEMBERS

SoCalGas announced on February 11, 2016, that it had finally sealed off Well SS-25. Four years later, approximately 75 residents, activists, and some candidates running for office in the March primary, gathered at the corner of Rinaldi and Tampa in Porter Ranch for a rally.

Addressing the crowd, Save Porter Ranch’s Matt Pakucko said, “I can’t believe this is four years later and we’re still doing this.” He said the gas storage site is being used a lot more, leading to many residents getting sick. His partner and Save Porter Ranch co-founder, Kyoko Hibino showed the many bags of bloody tissues she had collected due to suffering many nosebleeds.

Alexandra Nagy, the state director of Food & Water Watch, said the goal of the rally was to ask Governor Newsom for a countdown to shut down Aliso Canyon by the end of 2020, and also to demand he stop the withdrawals of gas from the wells. She noted the use of the site had increased over 1000 per cent since he took office in 2019.

Among the candidates speaking was city council member John Lee. He mentioned his resolution supporting Governor Newsom’s call for closing down the facility, and said he wanted to sponsor a bus to bring residents to city hall on the day his resolution comes up for a vote.

Candidates gather to push for Aliso’s closure. Photo by Rick Canter

His main opponent for the city council seat, Dr. Loraine Lundquist said, “It’s time for it (Aliso) to be shut down and be shut down now.” She vowed that the community is not going to stop fighting until “we get this place shut. We don’t need this facility. It’s poisoning us. It’s time to get it shut down.”

That weekend, at a candidates’ forum for the CD-12 seat, the candidates were asked about Aliso Canyon, Lee once again brought up his resolution, claiming it will come up for a vote the next week. Write in candidate Assad Alnajjar said there wasn’t any reason why the facility couldn’t be closed immediately. Dr. Lundquist explained the reasons why the facility isn’t needed, and added, “We the ratepayers are paying $40-million to keep this facility open.” As for the resolutions introduced by Lee and Supervisor Barger, she said, “The motions are admirable as we all want an accelerated closure, but it’s notable that these motions don’t include a timeline. They do not include a plan.” She added that since Lee has been in office, Aliso has been used more often than in the last four years.

Another topic covered in the forum was the $25-million health study that was allocated to the County by the 2018 consent decree.

Alnajjar said he wanted the study to have more powerful tools to understand and analyze this health study. He added he didn’t want a report that says “you’re imagining things, take a pill, and you’ll be better.”

“It’s ridiculous that it’s been four years from the very beginning of this disaster, and we still haven’t started a health study. That should have been pushed forth by the city council office,” said Dr. Lundquist. She also mentioned the letter that the chief toxicologist had sent out in March 2016 telling doctors not to conduct tests on their patients. She said the council office should have spoken out against that.

Lee said, “First, we don’t need a health study to tell us we were affected.” He suggested that the city could work with Senator Stern to push for a study conducted by the city (the one mentioned in the city’s Petroleum Administrator’s report).

As for Lee’s resolution, it hasn’t been brought before the City Council, as of January 2021. A resolution asking for a feasibility study for shutting down the Playa Del Rey facility was also referred to the Rules Committee on February 11, 2020, but was waived out of committee and placed before the full City Council on August 13th. Then a revised resolution for Playa, similar to the second Aliso resolution, was passed (including a yes vote by Lee), and referred back to the Rules Committee. Several members of the public commented that this resolution and the Aliso one should have been passed.

While the Aliso Resolution was in limbo, the Rules Committee met February 7th, February 21st, June 23rd, June 30th, September 23rd, October 14th, and December 2nd without any mention of Aliso.

HIDDEN CREEKS IN CHATSWORTH BECOMES OFF LIMITS TO DEVELOPERS

One issue for many in the northern SFV over the years was the development of the area. Housing communities in Porter Ranch alone had mushroomed in the last twenty years from a smattering of homes on Oat Mountain to several gated communities, two major shopping centers, two large churches, and two medical buildings by the end of 2020.

Because of the demand to live in the northwest SFV, developers were considering a couple of planned communities, Browns Creek and Hidden Creeks.

As the carrot to get the community on board with the Hidden Creeks development, Forestar produced a document in May 2011, that proclaimed “Hidden Creeks Estates and Preserve Delivering Important, New Community.”

Besides the 188 homes, equestrian village (to reel in the horse crowd) and a park, there would be 119 acres dedicated to a conserved open space.

During a second round of meetings and a public comment period in the spring of 2015, some residents became concerned about the proposal. At that time Save Porter Ranch, which was founded the year before, began trying to get local residents involved.

Back in 2015, LA City Planning, and the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council (PRNC) approved the idea of the City annexing the area to get this project going. But more organizations became involved in trying to stop this development

The next Environmental Impact Report (EIR) draft released in 2017 by the Los Angeles Planning Committee used outdated traffic studies, saying there would be no significant traffic impact to the neighboring communities of Porter Ranch and Chatsworth. Something that anyone who traveled on Rinaldi street or Devonshire Boulevard during rush hour can refute.

A petition circulated in 2008 was included, signed by “residents” endorsing the development, but many of the people who had signed lived as far away as Agoura Hills, Aqua Dulce, and Encino.

Despite the expected increase in school-aged children moving to the area, there were no plans to build any new schools. The building of the new developments in Porter Ranch, the Toll Brothers, used the “excellent” local schools as a sales tool, even as new students who had moved into Porter Ranch found themselves attending schools a few miles away instead.

But one detail that inflamed the opposition was the fact that the new development was just a few miles away from the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility.

The Phase I Environmental Site Assignment did not identify any potential health hazards to humans, the environment, or the project site. The project site is not identified as a contaminated site according to a records search, is not within one mile of a federal Superfund property, is not impacted by oil and gas production, and is not located within one mile of a site listed on the EDR report.

The most egregious inaccuracy concerned the health situation caused by Aliso Canyon. Along with the two largest operators there, Termo Oil and SoCalGas, are responsible over the years for many incidents, especially spills and leaks. The most serious was the infamous gas blowout that started October 2015 at the SoCalGas storage facility, when well SS-25 became damaged.

In the section under “Hazards and Hazardous Materials,” the effects from the site concluded the “potential short- and long-term health risks to future residents on the project site from a future natural gas leak at the Aliso Canyon Facility would be less than significant.” This was based on a 2015 assessment of health risks from the SS-25 Well leak issued by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (DPH) and the AQMD. A description of the Aliso site was in the EIR with a footnote which said the information was provided to Impact Sciences in 2007 by George Minter, then with Greer/Daily/Minter Public Affairs Consulting. Minter was a manager with SoCalGas between 2013 and 2020.

Yet, the planned development was within a couple of miles of some of the wells. And once the EIR was revised after the blowout, that section should have reflected the health complaints that occurred as a result.

With the renewed plan to build in the area to the west of Porter Ranch and the putting more people in danger due to the gas storage site, the PRNC, which had several new board members since 2015, and Save Porter Ranch urged community members to send in comments.

Another safety issue not mentioned was the seismic dangers. Forestar cannot move the fault away from the proposed houses, just as SoCalGas can’t move the Santa Susana fault out from under the wells that the fault transverses (by the way, all of the wells are transversed by this fault). Not to mention the other faults in close proximity. The CPUC received reports from geologists warning about the seismic danger, as well as a warning from former SoCalGas manager, James Mansdorfer, that a major quake on that fault could lead to a catastrophe event that will kill thousands. In addition, leading earthquake expert Dr. Lucy Jones has reported that a major fault on the southern end of the San Andreas fault could produce energy waves that might set off faults in the Los Angeles area, including the ones located in Aliso.

Besides Save Porter Ranch, Citizens Against the Hidden Creeks Development, and the Sierra Club, there were others involved with trying to stop the project, including Garrett Weinstein, the Project Analyst at Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, and Paul Edelman, the Deputy Director of Natural Resources and Planning at Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

This led to pressure on elected officials to take action and make the Mountain Recreation and Conservation Authority the official owner.

Here is the 2017 Draft EIR.

Among those at the Hidden Creeks dedication on February 21, 2020, was Supervisor Kathryn Barger, on one of her rare visits to the north San Fernando Valley. Knowing that she would be in the area, a community leader arranged for the Aliso Moms Alliance members to meet with her.

Aliso Moms Alliance. Photo courtesy of Helen Attar

That day, five of the co-founders Moms, Lori Aivazian, Helen Attar, Deidre Bolona, Nancy Hernandez, and this writer came with Save Porter Ranch co-founder Kyoko Hibino (Mom Jane Fowler was out of state at this time) to meet with Supervisor Barger to discuss the health crisis, especially the increasing diagnoses of cancers, caused by the Aliso Canyon polytoxic emissions.

Coincidentally, each woman represented a different neighborhood within the affected area, from Chatsworth to Porter Ranch to Granada Hills. We also brought up actions taken by DPH’s Dr. Cyrus Rangan to discourage local doctors from testing patients for evidence of toxic poisoning and the need to push for the air monitoring system specified in the 2018 consent decree, but somehow has been stalled.

Other topics quickly squeezed into the limited time with the supervisor were the subpoena for the chemical list, the need to revert back to previous withdrawal protocol, the need for an established timeline for shutting down the facility, and the need for a disaster response plan in the case of earthquake or future blowout. We also invited her to the health study town mall scheduled for the following month.

Among the items we gave her were info about the withdrawal protocol and Dr. Rangan’s letter that was sent to local doctors telling them not to provide toxicological testing for their patients.

The meeting ended with the Moms asking for another meeting in a couple of months, possibly with the inclusion of Senator Henry Stern. She seemed agreeable to the idea of another meeting.

That second meeting did not happen.

COVID-19

As I noted, the Aliso Moms didn’t get another meeting with Supervisor Barger. The Aliso Canyon resolution didn’t make it to the city council floor. The health study town hall was postponed. Any in-person meetings had been cancelled.

The reason: the COVID-19 pandemic. This once-in-a-century crisis literally affected all facets of life.

A major concern of those living in the area affected by Aliso was the serious medical conditions a large number of residents were experiencing. Many with respiratory and cardiac ailments as well as cancer were considered at high risk for developing complications if they came down with the virus. But whenever there were problems such as strong odors or leaks, it’ll be hard on residents who may not want to stay at a hotel nor seek a friend’s house for shelter.

A Harvard study showed a correlation between air pollution and comorbidity for COVID complications, acknowledging pollution can cause health problems, like heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and high blood pressure, all indicated as high risk factors. Given that Los Angeles County has many facilities involved in oil and gas production and storage facilities, it shouldn’t be any wonder why the County had been getting hit hard by the pandemic.

Most likely, more studies will come out to link the toxic emissions from fossil fuel facilities with a high possibility of developing complications.

Another impact from the COVID crisis is that meetings were now being held remotely through platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Web Ex, and Go ToMeeting.

Besides the March 21st town hall that the LA County Dept. of Public Health (DPH) had arranged to discuss the pending health study, also postponed was the first meeting for the Scientific Oversight Committee at which the members were to meet each other and meet members of the Committee Advisory Group. These were both held virtually, months later.

As had many meetings for groups and classes, Food & Water Watch was also utilizing the virtual mode for disseminating information about Aliso.

Among the webinars held were “Aliso Canon Still Poisoning People!” on February 4, “SoCalGas Benzene Aliso Canyon and Your Health,” on March 26th. A June 23rd webinar discussed the increased use of Aliso Canyon during Governor Newsom’s term. “Shut Aliso Down” Webinar on September 1st, discussed activities being planned for mid-October, the week of the 5th year milestone of the blowout’s onset.

Another postponement due to COVID was the Aliso Canyon disaster civil trial. A date had been set for June 24, 2020, but had been pushed back to the summer of 2021 or later.

The virus started spreading around the time the California primary was held on March 3rd. Among the races was the one for the city council seat for district 12, representing much of the northern San Fernando Valley. As the votes for that seat were still being counted, the next earth shaking event related to the Aliso Canyon facility would occur one week later.

DISCLAIMER: I helped with the Loraine for LA campaign in the 2020 election.

In Part 8 of this series, I would be discussing the upcoming health study looking into possible health effects from the 2015/16 Aliso Canyon blowout.