Protests can come in all sorts of forms: holding signs at a corner, a boycott or — as Porter Ranch residents demonstrated this past weekend — taking a hike.
A dozen people endured the 100-plus degree heat on Saturday, Aug. 15, when they hit the trails of the East Canyon in
Newhall to get a sense of the beautiful landscape and hiking trails that still exist in the area, and also view the sites for the proposed oil drilling wells that have caused so much concern and opposition in Porter Ranch.
The Southern California Gas Company and Termo, an oil company out of Long Beach, already have 280 gas and oil drilling wells in the area behind Porter Ranch. Termo, which has operated 24 oil and gas wells since 1989, wants to add 12 more wells and Porter Ranch residents oppose the project.
Alexandra Nagy, an organizer with the environmental group Food & Water Watch, which works to ensure that food, water and fish the public consumes is safe, accessible and sustainable, has been leading the fight against the additional wells.
The group is uniformly opposed to “fracking,” a technique where a high-pressure injection of water is forced into a well to break up in the deep rock formations to try and stimulate the release of any natural gas and petroleum deposits.
Nagy said they are concerned Termo will use hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” when they dig these wells.
“There are fault lines underneath all that area that are prone to earthquakes. These wells could also lead to water contamination,” Nagy said.
In April of this year, Termo announced it would conduct a complete Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the project. In the announcement, it also noted the company was “committed to not use hydraulic fracturing on any of the expanded operations.”
However, Nagy said, Food & Water Watch has found documents showing Termo has used “fracking” in the past and worry they will use it again.
“Although not required for the proposed project, Termo elected to perform a complete EIR because it will provide the community with a forum to engage in a discussion about the added oil and gas operations and to study the proposed project in a transparent manner,” said Ralph Combs, project manager for The Termo Company, in a press release.
“As proposed, the project would add three new pads—roughly an acre in size—for expanded oil and gas operations. These expanded operations are more than a mile away from the nearest home; will not be visible to the community; and have been designed to minimize impact to the surrounding habitat. We are proud to have been a part of the Porter Ranch community for more than 26 years.”
Nagy said it was only because of the community uproar that Termo gave in and went ahead with the EIR. They expect to see that report later this year.
Regardless of what the EIR shows, Nagy and residents of Porter Ranch are adamant in their opposition to the project.
“No matter what we find in the EIR, this project doesn’t gel with our community values,” Nagy said.
She said they are now pressuring for a health assessment besides the EIR that would be more comprehensive as to “what our residents are being exposed to.”
Since last year, Porter Ranch residents have complained of nose bleeds, headaches and a strong oil smell, especially when the wind blows downhill from the gas and oil field.
“All kinds of people are being put at risk because we don’t know what chemicals [are being released] or what they’re doing out there,” Nagy said.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, whose district is part of the Newhall and Porter Ranch area, has not called for a health assessment, Nagy said. But Los Angeles City Councilmember Mitch Englander, whose district includes Porter Ranch, has come out publicly supporting the residents.
Nagy said they collected 1,000 signatures to petition for the EIR, and they expect to do the same with a petition calling for a health assessment.
Edel Vizcarra, Antonovich’s Deputy for Planning and Land Use, dismissed allegations by Nagy and other activists who say the supervisor has not supported the community.
“The project wasn’t going to have an EIR. We worked with the applicant (Termo) to get an EIR on the table. It was our office that got them to agree to that,” Vizcarra said.
“We’ve been working with the neighborhood council. We work hand-in-hand with the community,” added Jared Begonia, deputy in charge of Porter Ranch for Antonovich’s office. “We’ve made sure all of the ’T’s are crossed.”
In regards to the health assessment, Vizcarra said once they see the EIR, they will know what the impacts on air and water will be.
“If anything comes back suggesting a potential concern, we’ll decide then, but we don’t know yet. It’s premature to address that right now,” he said. “The EIR will have a health review in it. It’s a very intense document.
Vizcarra added that despite what the residents say, “our office has never received a phone call reporting nosebleeds and headaches prior to the proposal.”
The proposed project has opened the eyes of many residents who didn’t know about the presence of the oil and gas operations in the area adjacent to Porter Ranch.
Craig Takahashi has lived in Porter Ranch for three decades. He said he was surprised to find out about the oil wells and worries about the prospect for more digging.
“I’m concerned about the ‘fracking.’ They already have gas wells and there’s already a lot of problems with brush fires. I believe that, with more oil wells, there will be more problems,” he said.
“My neighbor’s son has cancer. They don’t know what caused it, but if they make more wells, there is more chance of cancer and other health problems.”
Takahashi noted that residents here always seem to be in the midst of an environmental fight.
“Before it was the landfill (Sunshine Canyon) and now it’s the oil,” he said.
Mark Bender, a Woodland Hills resident who participated in the hike, concurs.
“We don’t want oil extraction in the hills of the West Valley. We did not know they had all these oil wells while we were raising our kids. They never told us anything,” complained Bender, who had a “No Fracking” button on his backpack.
“This is the government working with the oil companies, with whoever lobbies them the most. This is our way of lobbying. This is what we do without money,” Bender said.
Some of the hikers did not live in Porter Ranch and aren’t directly affected by the proposed project. But they were still against it.
“I came partly because of the hiking and also I’m against this oil drilling in urban areas and public areas. You want to save what you can save,” said a West Los Angeles resident.
At the end of the arduous one-hour hike in the sizzling temperatures, the participants reached a summit where one could see 360 degrees around them. Below them was the bustling Interstate 5 Freeway, Valencia and Sylmar.
But nearby one could see pine trees still green despite the drought, as well as brush, oak trees and all sorts of native vegetation. The proposed sites for the oil wells were in the distance, right in the middle of nature.