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Editorial: All oil-drilling neighbors deserve the same treatment as Porter Ranch victims

Dozens of demonstrators chant "shut it all down" as they protest outside the Aliso Canyon Storage Facility in Porter Ranch on May 15.
(Los Angeles Times)

When the four-month-long leak from the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage field was finally plugged in February, Los Angeles County health officials expected that Porter Ranch residents would no longer suffer from the nausea, headaches, nosebleeds and skin rashes that had forced thousands of people from their homes.

But weeks after the gas stopped flowing and the odor diminished, residents were still experiencing symptoms. County health officials commissioned tests of 101 houses in Porter Ranch and 11 outside the Porter Ranch area. The standard air quality sampling found nothing out of the ordinary. But tests of dust in houses near Aliso Canyon found metal contaminants consistent with those found in the well-drilling fluid that was used in attempts to plug the leaking well at the Aliso Canyon facility.

Even though the contaminants, which included barium, manganese, vanadium, aluminum and iron, were found in low levels, they could still be causing short-term problems, according to a county health analysis. For example, barium can cause eye, nose, throat and skin irritation – the very symptoms that many Porter Ranch residents have been complaining of. Health officials believe the chemicals used to try to stop the leak were spewed into the air and settled as dust in surrounding homes, and that their lingering presence is making people sick.

FULL COVERAGE: Porter Ranch gas leak >>

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Last week, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ordered Southern California Gas Co., which owns the Aliso Canyon facility, to pay to clean the insides of up to 2,500 homes in Porter Ranch. On Sunday, the county health department ordered the utility to halt clean-up work because its contractors were not following protocols, which include using specialized vacuum cleaners, wet cleaning the walls and clearing ductwork. One resident told the Los Angeles Daily News that the cleaners hired by the gas company were dusting with dry cloths and didn’t have special filters to absorb the dust.

County officials have been focused on the Aliso Canyon catastrophe, and their vigilance in protecting residents is commendable. But why stop at Porter Ranch? The fact is, people living near oil-drilling sites throughout Los Angeles County have experienced the same symptoms as Porter Ranch residents, year after year. Yet there has been little investigation into what, specifically, is making them sick or how to alleviate their suffering.

Despite the obvious risks of living next to oil and gas operations that use and emit toxic chemicals, there has been surprisingly little investigation into the potential health effects. A state-mandated study last year found that the public health impacts associated with proximity to oil and gas production have not been measured in California. Health officials said that usually when residents complain about pollution from industrial operations, regulators look for elevated levels of chemicals in the air around the site and homes. If the air quality is OK, the investigation typically ends. But the Porter Ranch situation shows that air sampling doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story, and that more extensive testing can reveal that residents might still be living with contamination that can make them ill.

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Porter Ranch was an extreme case; the damaged storage well was the worst methane leak in U.S. history, and gas company contractors tried unconventional ways to stop the flow of gas, including using barrels of heavy drilling mud in an attempt to plug the leak. County officials think that the mud was spewed out at high pressure, dropping oily residue on cars and homes as far as three miles away from the well, and depositing the contaminated dust in peoples’ homes. But what health officials are learning in Porter Ranch could have implications for oil-drilling operations elsewhere in Los Angeles County, where similar drilling fluids and chemicals are used and homes are much closer, sometimes just 100 to 400 feet away.

Now that health officials have evidence that chemicals associated with oil and gas drilling can accumulate in indoor dust and cause short-term effects even at low levels, they need to take seriously the complaints of residents living next to urban oil sites elsewhere and investigate whether they too are exposed to contamination in their homes. Regulators ought to be as attentive and vigilant to the impacts oil and gas operations have on neighbors throughout Los Angeles as they’ve been to the residents of Porter Ranch.

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