A chemical leak at a natural gas facility that had long been owned by San Diego-based Sempra Energy has been found to have contributed to the troubled health of residents in a poor Alabama community.
The Alabama Department of Public Health announced in a recent press release that the ongoing review of the 2008 leak in Eight Mile, Ala., has determined that the chemical odorant used to detect natural gas leaks is affecting residents in the predominantly African American community of 8,000.
In October, the Los Angeles Times reported about the leak in Eight Mile after residents in the community complained that they were largely ignored for years although 2,000 miles away, in the affluent Porter Ranch neighborhood, people were relocated and compensated following the methane leak from the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility — also owned by a Sempra subsidiary.
In both incidents, residents complained of nosebleeds, headaches and vomiting, which they attributed to the natural gas-related odor. In Eight Mile, residents have questioned whether the chemical odor contributed to seizures in children, respiratory ailments and other serious health effects.
"Based on the current scientific evidence and available information, we believe that the community is affected by the odors," said Dr. Mary McIntyre, chief medical officer for the Alabama health department.
"These odors may impact residents' sense of well-being and quality of life," McIntyre stated. "Mercaptan causes irritation to mucous membranes and has been associated with some of the symptoms reported by the residents of Eight Mile."
Mercaptan, a class of chemical that includes compounds of sulfur and mercury, has been used for decades to give odor to natural gas and has been considered fairly harmless by government and industry. Whether the smell is the source of the illnesses in Porter Ranch and Eight Mile has been a subject of debate.
At the Aliso Canyon facility, mercaptan was released along with vast amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, during a leak from a single well in October 2015. The leak forced thousands of residents in Porter Ranch and other nearby neighborhoods from their homes for months.
The Eight Mile leak was discovered a few months before Sempra acquired Mobile Gas Co., which owns the facility where the leak occurred. Sempra sold Mobile Gas in September.
Jenny Gobble, a spokeswoman for Spire Energy, the new owner of Mobile Gas, said the mercaptan leak did cause an odor in the community, but the company contends that the chemical "used to safely odorize natural gas for nearly 100 years" has not made residents sick.
"We are confident that Mobile Gas appropriately handled the situation in Eight Mile," Gobble said. Mobile Gas workers "responded quickly when the odor was first noticed, and since that time, they have installed effective treatment systems that use ozone to eliminate mercaptan in the water."
Carletta Davis, president of the We Matter Eight Mile Community Assn., has asked local officials to help protect residents as a result the health department's statement.
"We respectfully demand action be taken on behalf of the children, elderly and all individuals and entities affected by this tragic chemical spill," Davis said in a letter to government officials.
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2:30 p.m.: This article was updated with comment from Jenny Gobble, a spokeswoman for Spire Energy.