Health questions linger in wake of Aliso Canyon leak

Joannie Summers feels perpetually uneasy living near Aliso Canyon in Porter Ranch.

There is the strange laundry-detergent odor she sometimes smells. The people she’s known who have died of cancer. The headaches that she never got until a massive gas leak spewed from an underground storage facility in the mountains above her home.

As with many in her neighborhood, unresolved questions still swirl in Summers’ mind nearly six years after the largest methane leak in U.S. history.

“You question everything, and you think, well, maybe I don’t have anything,” said Summers, 71. “There’s an anxiety that comes with all this.”

A recent settlement of up to $1.8 billion between Southern California Gas Co. and thousands of alleged victims has offered a measure of relief to some. But many residents say they still know painfully little about how the disaster affected their health.

Residents also question why the massive storage facility is still allowed to operate. They insist they will feel safe only when the facility is closed for good. There is no clear timeline for decommissioning however, and pledges from officials to fast track that process have borne little fruit.

The blowout, which began on Oct. 23, 2015, and wasn’t stopped until mid-February of 2016, released more than 100,000 metric tons of methane and other compounds into the air and forced more than 8,000 families to relocate. Thousands complained of headaches, nosebleeds, nausea, dizziness and shortness of breath.

Little research has been done to assess the health effects of such a disaster, according to one expert, and a $25-million gas company-funded study being overseen by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health is years from providing insight.

“There just isn’t really great scientific literature on what that length of exposure can mean for the formation of long-term health effects,” said Michael Jerrett, a professor of environmental health science at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. Given how much time has passed since the leak, he added, “going back now and reconstructing the exposure is a really complicated and uncertain task.”

The Aliso Canyon leak released mostly methane gas, but also toxic pollutants including cancer-causing benzene, odorants called mercaptans that are added to the gas to give it a rotten-egg smell, and other sulfur-containing compounds that can cause health effects.

Residents not only inhaled air pollutants but were also exposed to toxic chemicals, metals such as barium and oil residue that settled inside their homes and were detected in dust sampling.

The state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment has attributed the symptoms reported by Porter Ranch residents to odorants that “can evoke physiological responses … without inducing more serious or longer-lasting health effects.” That office’s evaluation determined that concentrations of benzene were “similar to background levels generally found in the Los Angeles area” and that “any increase in cancer risk to people in the area due to benzene emissions from the natural gas leak is likely very small.”

Jerrett, who has studied levels of benzene and other pollutants detected in Porter Ranch, said he agreed that “the duration of the event and the likely dose that was absorbed is unlikely to elicit long-term cancer risk. But can we say that with absolute certainty? No.”

Christine Detz, a spokeswoman for SoCalGas, said that health officials maintain “there was and is no long-term risk to public health or safety from the 2015 gas leak” and that “our storage facilities operate by what regulators and experts have called some of the most rigorous safety standards in the country.”

But the L.A. County Department of Public Health said that many residents are “continuing to suffer long-term health impacts.”

“There are still important questions that remain unanswered about how this disaster impacted the lives of residents, and a multi-faceted and scientifically based health study is needed to answer these questions,” officials said.

Surveys by the department found the majority of households near the Aliso Canyon facility continued to experience health problems after the leak was stopped. And air quality complaints continued to pour in.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District said that 1,296 of the more than 3,500 complaints it has received about Aliso Canyon since 2015 have occurred since the failed well was sealed, but that “generally, the number of complaints attributed to the facility have decreased annually since.”

Residents have continued to complain of odors, filing complaints this year at a rate of about five or six a month, spokeswoman Nahal Mogharabi said.

The air district has issued eight violation notices to the facility since SoCalGas resumed injections in July 2017. One of them, in December 2017, cited the company after attributing community odor complaints to “a release of natural gas from a vessel during repairs.” Three citations issued this year involved emissions violations identified during inspections.

In a statement, the county health department said that it has “not been made aware of imminent health threats that pose a risk to the community.”

Concerns about long-term health effects persist. In one question in a 2020 community opinion survey of people living near Aliso Canyon, 67% of respondents said that they or someone in their household had experienced physical health symptoms in the last year that they believed were related to the leak or the natural gas storage facility.

A draft of the health study’s goals and priorities was released by the county health department last spring. Officials said they anticipate requesting proposals from independent researchers this fall and to award a contract next spring, with research to begin shortly thereafter.

The department is also analyzing blood samples from Porter Ranch residents for trends in blood counts over time as well as for liver and kidney function, according to health officials. The results will be compared with residents in six other ZIP Codes that aren’t near the Aliso Canyon facility.

But members of a community advisory group, consisting mostly of San Fernando Valley residents providing guidance to health officials, have expressed deep frustration with the health study’s rollout. They’ve criticized officials for not requiring a clinical study that includes medical testing of patients in the draft proposal.

“The community firmly wants clinical evaluations of the residents that have lived nearby and have been exposed,” said advisory group member Craig Galanti, of Porter Ranch. “They do not want a back-of-the-napkin air modeling estimate of what we have been exposed to.”

They’ve also criticized the department for refusing to compel SoCalGas to provide a list of what residents may have been exposed to.

In a statement, the health department said that its draft proposal had intended to focus on goals, not a study method such as conducting clinical evaluations. It also said “the county is not going to issue a subpoena seeking information from SoCalGas,” since the California attorney general’s office, the Los Angeles city attorney and L.A. County agreed to settle litigation and resolve all disputes.

Officials also said that although they had met with the USC Cancer Surveillance Program and the advisory group’s members in 2020 about the possibility of doing a study that would compare cancer rates in Porter Ranch and neighboring communities to rates in L.A. County, members of the group “wanted a more sophisticated cancer study” that the university’s representatives said they couldn’t do.

Three of the group’s members have grown so frustrated that they are forming a nonprofit to fund their own clinical research. One of them, Andrew Krowne, created a mobile app that several thousand people have used to document their health symptoms.

“This community deserves an effort far beyond what public health is doing,” said Krowne, whose family lived in Chatsworth during the leak and suffered bloody noses and headaches. “It’s up to us.”

Some began to distrust the county health department in the early days of the leak, when it said that “permanent or long-term health effects are not expected.”

In early 2016, medical providers treating patients affected by the blowout were sent an advisory from the county health department asking them to “avoid performing any toxicological tests,” saying they “are unlikely to provide useful data for clinical evaluation of patients.”

“I was hearing ‘don’t test, don’t look for toxins,’ and that seemed to be the common theme to the Department of Public Health from there on out,” said Dr. Jeff Nordella, who ran an urgent care about three miles from Aliso Canyon at the time of the leak.

In a statement, the department said that long-term health effects are often hard to assess when initially responding to an emergency and that “assumptions were made about risks that have since been clarified as more accurate information was obtained.” Officials said that they had advised clinicians after the blowout that toxicological testing of patients may not be needed partly because testing of chemicals like benzene can be misleading “as these tests fluctuate considerably within patients, and rarely reveal levels of toxicity even when a person may have been exposed” and that a patient’s symptoms would generally suffice as evidence of health effects related to exposures.

SoCalGas also paid $1 million to fund a separate health study as part of a 2017 settlement with the South Coast Air Quality Management District over violations involving the gas leak.

After receiving the money from SoCalGas, the South Coast air district in 2018 solicited research proposals for the study. The one bid that was submitted in response, by Jerrett to study pregnancies in the community and conduct blood sampling to test for any unusual pollutants, was evaluated by a panel of experts and “failed to meet minimum technical scores to be fundable,” so no contracts were issued, according to the air district.

In April 2021, the air district’s governing board “authorized the funds to be re-purposed and used as part of the air monitoring,” spokeswoman Mogharabi said.

Residents say it’s taking far too long for the South Coast air district to set up enhanced air quality monitoring in the Porter Ranch area under the another settlement the gas company reached with state and local officials in 2018.

Mogharabi said the air district could not move forward with the $3.3-million project until it received money from a settlement fund administered by the state Attorney General’s Office. It received that money in late August and has “moved quickly since then” to finalize a contract to monitor methane, benzene and other toxic air pollutants in real time and provide an online portal for reporting health symptoms.

Many in Porter Ranch say they will only feel safe when the facility is shut down for good.

Since 2017, the California Public Utilities Commission has been studying the technical feasibility of permanently closing Aliso Canyon. But nearly two years after Gov. Gavin Newsom called on the commission to accelerate its shutdown planning, there is no timeline to replace the facility with clean energy sources.

On Friday, meanwhile, commission staff proposed allowing SoCalGas to store twice as much natural gas at the facility, doubling a cap implemented after the blowout. State oil and gas regulators have declared that the higher limit is safe.

The utilities commission is worried that continuing to limit storage levels could result in higher gas and electricity prices this winter, or even lead to energy shortages during an extreme weather event like the cold snap that froze pipelines and power plants in Texas last winter.

Martha Guzman Aceves, one of five commission members, said the possibility of an event like that affecting California “just didn’t let me sleep at night.” Allowing more gas storage at Aliso is “certainly not where I wanted us to be. But we can’t not do what’s best for Californians to get through the winter,” she said in an interview.

Still, Guzman Aceves isn’t convinced that doubling the storage cap, as commission staff have proposed, is necessary. She issued her own “alternate” proposed decision approving a much smaller increase, one of two proposals the commission is scheduled to vote on Nov. 4.

Guzman Aceves said she’s committed to figuring out what investments are needed to shut down Aliso, especially as a climate crisis propelled by natural gas and other fossil fuels brings deadlier heat waves, bigger fires and more extreme droughts. Options for phasing out the gas storage field include replacing gas heaters and stoves with electric appliances and building power lines to bring more renewable electricity to Los Angeles.

“The solution is we get off of gas,” GuzmanAceves said.

The morning after the settlement was announced this week, residents and activists gathered on a street corner in Porter Ranch to call for Aliso Canyon’s closure.

Among them was Maureen Capra, who has lived in Porter Ranch for 47 years and said she’s scared living near the facility. Since the disaster, she constantly runs air purifiers in her house and keeps the windows shut.

“I love the area, I love the people out here, but I hate that methane mountain,” she said. “What could happen is always facing me.”

Some residents are looking to the health study to provide answers about what may be in their family’s future.

The leak forced Rana Azimi, her husband and their 1- and 3-year-old boys to flee their dream home in Porter Ranch and move into a cramped apartment in Westwood.

Her husband was diagnosed with testicular cancer in the months after the leak and Azimi was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019, undergoing a double mastectomy.

She hopes that the health study will identify the harms of exposure and allow doctors to advise families on preventive care.

“Are my kids going to get cancer, and am I going to be alive to see them through it?” she said. “If it’s not [for] our generation, it’s going to help people for generations ahead.”

Times staff writer Sammy Roth contributed to this report.

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