Why I’m Speaking Up About the Aliso Settlement Offer

I admit I’m a control freak. I like to have as much control over my destiny. I also believe that “Knowledge is Power.” Because these two aspects are important for me, I have noticed that much of what has happened in the last seven years or so regarding Aliso Canyon has been out of my control as well as for everyone else who lives here.

Often, we have seen successes, and generally that has been because residents and supporters have stepped up. Some these small victories have been because of certain individuals.

Save Porter Ranch (SPR) has been one catalyst for these victories. Matt Pakucko and Kyoko Hibino started the organization more than a year before the blowout, to bring attention to the Termo Company’s plan to increase the number of its oil drilling wells on Oat Mountain.

Sometime in the summer of 2014, I received an email from either SPR or Food & Water Watch (FWW) about this, asking residents to attend the August 6th Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council (PRNC) forum. My daughter and I attended this meeting held in a packed school auditorium. It turned out many of those living here were concerned whether Termo intended to conduct fracking. This was definitely an informed community, I thought. Food & Water Watch, which from what I understand, was to be part of this forum, but ended up kept off the stage. Instead, these activists put out fliers for an upcoming meeting about the dangers of having a facility like this close to homes. After attending that informative session, I wrote a piece for a local parents’ blog, which I linked to in my own website.

As a result of many writing in to Michael Antonovich, our supervisor at the time, and the County Regional Planning office, Termo was required to conduct an Environmental Impact Report. In January 2016, the grandson of the founder of the company, who is a Termo manager, issued a letter saying that because of “the current situation in Aliso Canyon, its potential effect on the community of Porter Ranch, the current economics of oil production” and talks with the supervisor and then-councilmember Michael Englander, the draft EIR’s release was placed on hold. That situation was the Aliso Canyon blowout.

When methane and mercaptans flooded the Porter Ranch environment starting on October 23, 2015, SPR, along with its partner FWW, started informing the local neighborhoods, schools, and elected officials. At that same time, SoCalGas was publicly denying there was a problem even to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and the CPUC, while secretly trying to stem the leaking.

Even though some people on social media vilify SPR, this group has planned many rallies, informational meetings, and town halls. Among the most famous of actions took place on February 1, 2017. The state’s Dept. of Conservation (DOC) planned a two-day session to inform residents of Aliso “safety review.” The original agenda said that the sessions would consist of DOGGR (now Cal-GEM) giving a presentation. Then the attendees would be broken up into small groups to express their opinions to staffers (I referred to them as “dudes with clipboards”) and each session would end with a summary of those comments.

As some of us found that format to be unacceptable, we contacted elected officials and asked them to intercede. A new agenda was announced, switching the public comment to be more akin to a town hall. We considered even that change unacceptable as the time allotted to public comment was too short. The dog-and-pony show presentation was available already online and was just meant to convince us that the facility was safe.

On the first night, when the facilitator was explaining the schedule, Matt stood up with a bullhorn and asked for residents to come up front. Many wearing red “Shut It All Down” tee shirts (with the graphic designed by Walker Foley and the tee-shirt designed by local artist Vikki Samela) did so. The demand: skip the biased presentation and go straight to public comments. The department finally acceded and skipped the presentation.

You can read the transcripts of the February 1st hearing and February 2nd to read what elected officials, community leaders, residents, and even some shills (reps from groups which receive money from SoCalGas and attend hearings such as this one to praise the gas company) said. Also, there is a PDF of the written letters and emails sent to the DOC about the “safety review.”

Other actions planned by the FWW and SPR have included trips to Sacramento for members to meet with legislators about active bills. The North Hills home that would become headquarters for the groups, would see anywhere from a kitchen-table meeting planning future actions to outside gatherings for art builds and training sessions. In the six years since the blowout started, there have been three sit-ins at the facility gate, a theatrical protest in front of Sempra board of director (and sister of Governor Jerry Brown) Kathleen Brown’s condo building, and even the premiere of a documentary that featured the Aliso Blowout plus two other gas-related disasters.

Another who has done much for our community has been Dr. Jeffrey Nordella. At the time of the blowout, he worked at an urgent care center in Porter Ranch, and noticed that many of his patients were presenting with specific symptoms. He gave these patients chest x-rays and blood work. In 2017, he negotiated with an out-of-state lab to process residents’ head and urine samples for a toxicology screen. The lab flagged the doctor about an unsettling trend: the specimens were testing high compared to national averages for certain chemicals including uranium. About a month before his town hall to present his findings, he found himself terminated by the company which owned the urgent care center, leaving many residents wondering if SoCalGas has anything to do with this.

Some residents formed the Aliso Canyon Community Action Committee in 2018 to help bring attention to our health issues. The group met with Dr. Nordella several times to help him with the paper he was working on regarding his findings, based on the hair and urine tests, and on his medical surveillance study, which entailed looking at residents’ complete blood counts. From this committee, six women formed their own group in early summer 2019 called the Aliso Moms Alliance. Our mission was to inform the community about the harm the SoCalGas site was bringing to the northern San Fernando Valley.

From then on, at least a couple of the Aliso Moms would be at attending climate change rallies or speaking at CPUC and other meetings. One community leader arranged for the Moms to meet with Supervisor Kathryn Barger in February 2020, on one of her rare visits to Porter Ranch. Joined by SPR’s Hibino, each of us, by coincidence, represented a different neighborhood. Unfortunately, the supervisor took up much of the one hour we had with her to boast about how she made sure she got us a health study through the consent decree.

We explained that we didn’t have faith in the study and the County Department of Public Health (DPH). She was shown the March 2016 letter to doctors, written by DPH’s toxicologist, Dr. Cyrus Rangan, discouraging them from considering Aliso as the cause for the diseases and medical conditions that were popping up by residents (when I developed a persistent cough in June 2016 and asked my doctor if Aliso could be the cause, he seemed irritated and said, oh, that’s just the lawyers talking, but I truly believed his rant was a result of the directive). Barger feigned ignorance in the directive, even though she worked for her predecessor Antonovich at the time and should have been aware of any actions the county had taken about Aliso. The Moms gave a rundown of the increasing numbers of cancer diagnoses in our neighborhood. At the end of the hour, she said she would meet with us again, along with senator Henry Stern. That second meeting never happened. Even though the pandemic was unfolding at that time, it was more likely her reelection was the reason.

There were other actions by residents including, giving public comments to the LA City Council and the various hearings, calling electeds to demand support for legislation that would establish a mortarium on operations at Aliso, or resolutions calling for the closure. We tried to control the narrative, telling reporters who showed up that what happened in 2015 was a blowout and not just a leak, that it was more than methane and mercaptans that came out of well SS-25, as well as other wells that continued to leak, and that the hazardous chemicals we were exposed to didn’t stop at the boundary of the 91326 zip code.

And the community will get a chance in 2022 to help push state lawmakers to vote for a timeline for closing the facility, in a bill to be introduced by state senator Henry Stern.

But unfortunately, much of what has happened in regards to Aliso has been out of our control. Many times, we would get a step ahead, but then get bad news setting us back two steps.

Many times, it was the DPH’s actions. From time to time, the department would do the right thing in that it ordered SoCalGas to provide relocation to residents and then a special cleaning of homes within a five-mile radius. Unfortunately, there was a specter of chaos surrounding the relocation. At first, only those located in Porter Ranch were given the phone numbers of property companies, many of which were located on the east coast. Some of the offerings were too small or impractical for families and couples who had to live away from their homes for weeks (which turned into months for some). And in the long run, only those who hadn’t returned immediately to the area, had their homes cleaned. Not those who came home before then, or didn’t relocate.

Otherwise, there were so many ways DPH harmed us. The first few “fact sheets” issued said the symptoms, such as nosebleeds and headaches, residents were experiencing were from the methane and the odorants, which were added to the naturally odorless gas. The LAUSD used the fact sheets to justify doing nothing (it took Board of Education member Scott Schmerelson to get relocation for the two schools closest to Aliso) to help the many children suffering nosebleeds and migraines while sitting in their classrooms.

A legal brief filed by local firefighters against SoCalGas, said that DPH’s Rangan and Katie Butler came to their stations to inform them that they weren’t being exposed to harmful chemicals.

After the well was sealed in February 2016, and it was obvious residents were still suffering from all sorts of health problems, DPH officials were finally coming around to the idea that we were exposed to more than just methane and mercaptans. But instead of forcing SoCalGas to give a comprehensive list of chemicals used on the site, DPH guesstimated a list of ones to test for in homes. Besides using a nearby community (six miles away in Northridge, where, as it turned out, the same chemicals were landing) for a control group, the department also ignored the recommendation of the academics who performed the testing, who concluded more study is necessary.

When the 2018 consent decree gave the task of administrating a health study to DPH, many of us were skeptical that this study will answer residents’ questions about Aliso’s impact on our health. One of DPH’s early actions was to form a Community Advisory Group. Six neighborhood councils were asked to appoint a representative to the CAG (with PRNC appointing two members). These initial seven members were to appoint at large members from those submitting applications. But when they were given heavily redacted information (listing one’s neighborhood and perhaps a little tidbit about each one), the council reps insisted on holding in-person interviews of applicants. DPH decided instead to take over the selection process, claiming “transparency.” Even though I was reluctant, given two serious health matters in my immediate family, many of the original CAG urged me to apply. I was surprised, given my involvement in the movement to shut down Aliso, that I was among those selected. In addition, at least two members approached me about helping determine the backgrounds of the new members.

Immediately, I found out that one mystery selection was someone who the DPH designated as representing “health and social service providers” (the onboarding materials we were sent indicated categories the CAG was to represent). He lived just out of the affected area, he served on some committee for DPH, and his organization had received money in the past from SoCalGas. We expressed to DPH our concerns, but it took five months before he was removed from the CAG. Two more persons were also dropped at the time for failure to attend any meetings, nor respond to CAG emails. Between the first meeting in August 2019 and the present, the 19 members have dropped to ten.

Since that first meeting, the CAG became concerned, that this would not be a scientific, clinical, and community-centric health study, but would instead be an environmental risk assessment based on incomplete and flawed data. The community had already spoke out in 2017 against a one-million dollar “health study” that the AQMD was going to conduct as part of a lawsuit settlement with the gas company. I discussed our concerns in an article, written about a week before DPH released its Request for Proposals. That document reinforced our belief that any look into health effects will be a whitewash.

We know not to trust the regulatory agencies that should be overseeing SoCalGas. The CPUC failed to ensure that operations at Aliso would be safe. And as I said before, the Dept. of Conservation, which includes the CPUC, had pushed the message that Aliso was safe to resume operations. And even after the root cause analysis report, which showed the negligence by the utility, was released AFTER the DOC’s decision to reopen Aliso, the CPUC and SoCalGas pointed fingers at each other regarding blame for the blowout. A red-faced CPUC opened two investigations soon after.

In light of the lack of true oversight by Cal-GEM and CPUC, I wonder if the Commission will end up wimping out when a decision is rendered regarding the investigation opened into whether SoCalGas should be sanctioned for causing the blowout. Between periodic acidizing and many withdrawals of methane, SoCalGas has been doing business as usual, and yet claiming that any leaks and incidents at the site pose no long-term risk to us. That’ a claim that DPH has failed to challenge, even though the department knows the wells are harming residents.

All this was top of an investigation which opened in 2017 to look into the feasibility of closing Aliso or otherwise minimizing its use. After Governor Newsom sent a letter in November 2019 asking the CPUC to “expedite” the closure, CPUC hired a consulting firm to help. Unfortunately, FTI Consulting has a long-standing relationship with fossil fuel companies. As part of this proceeding, CPUC voted to allow SoCalGas to increase the capacity of storage this November, claiming it’s needed for winter reliability, despite more than sixty public comments urging the agency to vote against the increase.

In all the workshops and discussions regarding the proceeding, one aspect was missing, according to Issam Najm, a former president of the PRNC and an official party to the investigation. His many statements regarding the need to discuss health and safety issues posed by Aliso fell on deaf ears at the regulatory agency.

Even a recent ruling by the CPUC showed the reluctance to show some guts. The agency fined $9.8-million SoCalGas for improperly using ratepayer money to lobby against efforts to decarbonize California. But this amount was only a drop in the bucket as it was only 8% of what the consumer watchdog group, the California Public Advocates, and Earthjustice, were seeking.

One major area where residents had no power has been with the many legal cases and decisions.

When government lawyers brought criminal charges against SoCalGas, a deal was cut in September 2016, for some concessions without the gas company having to admit to guilt. Some $500,000 went into the County general fund (for fines and penalties) and to the LA County Fire Department Hazmat Division (for its investigation). Even the methane monitors, which resulted from this case, were turned into a public relations ploy by SoCalGas. Plus, we all know that often the system is offline, and we even have proof that during one leak in December 2017, the monitors were set to private.

In addition, to a real lack of consequences for SoCalGas, the County of Los Angeles refused to allow restitution for residents. Marsey’s Law, passed in 2008, grants the right of victims of crime to seek restitution. There was the glimmer of hope a few years ago when briefs were introduced to help residents, many of whom packed the Santa Clarita courthouse wearing red “Victim” ribbons for the hearings. The justification for seeking restitution was based on the three days between the official onset of the blowout and the time residents were informed. But alas, residents were screwed in the end.

The AQMD lawyers cut a deal with SoCalGas from a lawsuit resulting from SoCalGas playing games with the January 2016 abatement order, which resulted in money for the agency, with $1-million set aside to underfund a health study. According to the agency’s press release: “The settlement specifies that of the $8.5 million, $1 million will be designated for a SCAQMD-sponsored health study; $5.65 million will pay for emission fees related to the leak; $1.6 million will reimburse SCAQMD for air monitoring costs and $250,000 for its legal fees. The settlement also specifies that $1 million of the $5.65 million in emission fees will help fund a renewable natural gas production project demonstrating the commercial and technical viability of renewable natural gas…” The governing board voted to officially end the abatement order after that.

So, not only was SoCalGas getting off the hook for genuinely funding a health study (which was specified in the abatement order), but was also helping to fund a study regarding RNG, which was probably the gas company’s idea.

We also saw a version of Aliso Kabuki theater when the County attempted to get the reopening of Aliso stayed in July 2017. Residents packed the courtroom only to realize that the Department of Conservation (which Cal-GEM and the CPUC are a part of) held the cards. I was so pissed when the outside counsel hired by the county kept talking about 32,000 residents, and I wanted to scream that this number represented only about three per cent of those who are being affected by the emissions. In the end, once again we were screwed. SoCalGas was given the green light to resume operations, albeit at a reduced level. And we know that the leaks kept happening, despite the DOC’s claims that the wells were tested and safe to use.

The consent decree was another instance of government lawyers failing the community. Of the $119.5-million to be paid by the gas company, $40-million will go to the government attorneys to pay for attorney fees, costs, and litigation, and civil penalties, and $26-million went to fund a dairy digester program that would financially benefit SoCalGas, even though the California Air Resources Board (CARB) disputed what was stated by thousands of letters sent in against this project. That last was definitely not the mitigation project that was promised to use in 2016. We are also not holding much hope that the $25-million health study will avoid being a white wash.

The consent decree was officially signed off by a judge three years ago this month. Within a few months of the checks arriving from SoCalGas, all of the different projects listed in the decree have been funded and activated (for example, DPH held orientation sessions regarding the health study in March 2019, with the CAG meetings starting five months later).

All of the projects have been moving forward…except for the BTEX air monitoring system. First, the Aliso Fund Committee (attorneys for the state, LA County, and LA City) took two years after the issuance of the decree to get to the step of holding a town hall. The AFC lawyers were asked why did it take so long, and, when they gave COVID as a reason, community members reminded the committee that the lockdown started AFTER 1–1/2 years of the decree’s announcement. Two years after SoCalGas sent in checks for the project, the AQMD, which was tasked with administrating the selection and installation, was only starting to write the RFP. To date, the vendor has been selected (back in June 2021), and according to the AQMD, there’s still legal details to work out. Yet, in the meantime, the community doesn’t have a way to check the levels of chemicals we’re being exposed to. And in the scheme of things, this project represented a small percentage of the total amount, at $3-million (for a monitoring system in Porter Ranch and another in an environmental justice community).

By no means is this a complete list of the ways that the various agencies affected our community. Plus, there have been many actions on the part of SoCalGas. As well as many inactions by elected officials (with some who have helped us). You can read a more complete look at Aliso that I compiled into a PDF.

As for the September announcement to settle the mass tort, I listed the sources of legal briefs and other information which I feel would scratch the surface of what needs to be made public in my article which recaps 2021 in regards to Aliso. I discussed how SoCalGas had been fined on more than once occasion for attempting to withhold documents during the discovery process for the lawsuit. The gas company’s game of withholding and then conducting document dumps has also been done to Blade Energy, as well as trying to keep documents from being used in the CPUC investigations.

The announcement came as a complete surprise to the community, including the approximately 30,000 plaintiffs who had signed on to the lawsuit. The lawyers seemed pretty proud of themselves in front of the TV cameras. But back in the community, there has been a mixed reaction.

Some of the plaintiffs had been complaining on the main gas leak Facebook page for years about wanting a settlement offer. Many in this group the Aliso activists have never heard from other than that. Not a single “how can we help shut down this facility?” Not any requests for contract info for our elected officials. Not a promise to attend that week’s rally. Most likely, they didn’t even come to any of the status hearings, at which lawyers vastly outnumbered members of the community.

There are certainly people who are willing to take even scrapings just to get closure from Aliso. They may listen and believe their lawyers who are saying there won’t be more higher offers, or if they don’t sign on the dotted line by June 1st, that’s it. And believe what they’re told that if the case goes to trial, it will take a decade before they see any compensation. This despite the fact that the depositions of SoCalGas executives and residents and the discovery period have taken place, and the trial date was already set for February 2022. I wonder how many of them asked their lawyers for the pros and cons of accepting that first offer.

There are other residents who want closure, but also want to have the facts before deciding whether to accept this offer. Some in this category have expressed frustration in getting the information they need. They understand that Sempra, the parent company of SoCalGas, had set aside a ton of money (especially from their insurance company) to settle the mass tort.

Of the $1.8-billion offered, the head lawyers will get seven per cent of this amount for the “Fee Fund” and “Cost Fund” listed in section 4.5 of a document filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission on September 26, 2021. Unless my math is wrong, seven percent of $1.8-billion is $126-million. Again, this is off the top of the offer. Two retired judges will be looking at each plaintiff’s case to determine their award. The law firm representing a plaintiff will get a third of that amount. The average award, once legal fees are deducted, would come to $18,750. Depending on how these judges interpret each plaintiff’s harm, one could end up with more, but some will end up with far less. Will the individual plaintiffs be given an idea of how much they could expect to receive BEFORE signing to opt in?

In addition, according to the document I linked to, there’s the possibility of the total amount being reduced, according to a listed formula.

The gas company collected a ton of money from their insurance policy. They also have made a lot of money off of Aliso, and put some of that aside to settle the various lawsuits, including the mass tort. In reality, SoCalGas managers got hefty bonuses (by the way, the facility had a net book value of $858-million as of June 30, 2021). Governmental lawyers collected a lot of money from the various deals made with gas company lawyers. Lawyers representing plaintiffs in the mass tort will get a hefty payout.

I have never hidden the fact that my husband and I didn’t join the mass tort. But I have supported my friends and community members in helping to make our community whole, healthy, and safe. Often, some of my friends will ask me to come with them for that day’s status hearing for the lawsuit or to a hearing for the restitution case, and will go if I was available. Just as (pre-COVID), I’ve gone to many meetings and rallies, and now try to attend as many Zoom meetings about Aliso as possible. I know some people who have done as much, or even more, than I have.

But I won’t be silent when I think people are not acting in their best interest. And I think this is one of those times that I hope people will ask questions and not blindly sign off on the dotted line just because they want closure. That’s not taking control, but rather passing it on to others to decide your fate.

And yes, there is a selfish reason I have for speaking. I and just about everyone else who lives in the reach of the gas storage facility does understand that a LA Superior Court judge nor a jury has the ability to order the place shut down. But there’s a hell of a lot of useful information in those documents SoCalGas was so reluctant to turn over. The gas company doesn’t want the case to go to trial because of that info. And we shouldn’t want the discovery nor the depositions to be sealed. A little money isn’t going to undo the harm done to some residents. But a little or more of information might undo the health and safety harm that’s still being done to those who still live here.

So many ways, we haven’t been in control of our own destiny when it comes to the hazardous site just above us that continues to spew out toxic polytoxins on a daily basis.

The question remains: Will residents decide to relinquish control to the law firms, or will they decide to control their own fate?

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