Porter Ranch Group Suspects State and County Agencies of “Destroying Evidence” at Aliso Canyon

Members of a Porter Ranch advisory group wanting to research and determine potential long-term health problems resulting from the infamous widespread gas leak at the Aliso Canyon storage facility are challenging the California Public Utilities Commission’s (CPUC) directive to the county Department of Public Health to dispose of soil and other materials collected during the crisis.

The Community Advisory Group (CAG) for the Aliso Canyon Disaster Health Research Study says 30 of 180 bins have been taken from the facility. The material stored inside those bins, CAG members say, has not been independently examined or tested and they would define such action as “destroying evidence.”

Noted Porter Ranch family physician Dr. Jeffrey Nordella, who was the medical director at the Porter Ranch Quality Care medical center during the gas leak, is one of 15 Scientific Oversight Committee (SOC) members named to study results from lab tests of material in the bins and examine affected residents having any continued existing health problems resulting from the leak.

He said the advisory group was told about the removals by public health officials at a CAG meeting a couple of weeks ago.

“The information was disclosed by Katie Butler,” an environmental epidemiologist and senior staff analyst for the health department, Nordella said. “In numerous statements, she informed us that [the health department] was recently informed these bins existed, even though they knew about them in 2019. She stated they were informed that if they wanted to do some form of analysis, [the bins] were being taken away off-site, and were going to be distributed or destroyed — and I don’t know what they did with them.

“From what I understand, there is a [state] agency — and I don’t know the name of it so I can’t quote it — that has to do with toxicology, and the CPUC is aware of these bins. The CPUC had to okay an order or recommendation from this agency telling them to get the bins off-site because they are toxic.”

The committee was further angered, Nordella said, in learning that the health department has allegedly hired a lab to do testing without input from either SOC or CAG. He said it was the same lab that did the initial testing of soil and materials when the leak was discovered. Those initial exams did not include testing for benzene, a toxic element used to make industrial chemicals, that was later found to be at high levels in the soil of the facility, and in people’s homes.

“The inappropriateness of it is a), if you knew about it in October, why didn’t you disclose it to the SOC;  b), why didn’t you get input from the oversight committee before you hired an independent lab to unilaterally use your own discretion of what to test for in the bins; and c), supposedly Katie Butler unilaterally did this without the knowledge of the scientific officer. Why wasn’t the officer informed the bins existed, and what were you going to test for?” Nordella said.

The doctor said it was his understanding the material stored in bins has been there more than four years. “So why is there such a hurry to get rid of it now? Now that we know of it, put everything on hold and let the Scientific Oversight Committee do its due-diligence and thought process, and figure out what we really need to test for as we enter into this health study.”

The Aliso Canyon well blowout, first discovered on Oct. 23, 2015, was the largest uncontrolled release from a natural gas storage facility in US history. State officials would not officially declare the leak permanently plugged until Feb. 18, 2016. By that time, more than 100,000 tonnes of methane and ethane emissions had gone into the atmosphere; local residents reported various medical reactions ranging from headaches, nausea, skin rashes and severe nosebleeds, and hundreds evacuated their homes.

SoCalGas, which owns the facility, would eventually plead no contest to a misdemeanor count of failing to immediately report the leak, pay a $4 million fine, and agree to a $119.5 million settlement with various agencies. Included in that settlement is the $25 million funding for the health study. But, Nordella said, the actual study has not yet begun.

In an Aug. 11 letter to the county Board of Supervisors and Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer, the advisory group urged the board to “use all legal means available” to intercede and halt the excavation of said soil and materials being taken from the well site SS-25, a task that is to be completed on or before Aug. 24.

The letter went on to say, “Anything less than the preservation and the independent analysis of this evidence will be viewed by the CAG and the Public as a complete breach of public trust, suggests a coverup that disregards the public’s health and threatens the validity and credibility of the Health Study.”

CAG member Craig Galanti said the group followed up the letter with a request to meet with Supervisor Kathryn Barger.

“We have not heard back about the letter we submitted. We followed up with a request to meet with the Supervisor (Barger), and we’re told that there is no way ‘in the near future’ the Supervisor will have time to meet with us.”

Compounding the group’s frustration, CAG member Andrew Krowne said, is the reality that “we have no authority and no access, and are completely at the mercy of the county.”

Representatives for Supervisor Barger did not respond to a call from the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol seeking comment.

So Nordella and others suspect potentially valuable material may have already been removed from the site and eliminated.

“This has been up there four-and-a-half years, and all of a sudden now it’s an issue,” Nordella said. “And if it’s been up there four-and-a-half years, you could probably wait another 90 days or so to allow the SOC to come up with a thought process on what should be studied, and getting the samples before you destroy the scientific evidence.

“Again, if there were 180 bins up there and now there’s 150 on the site, where did the other 30 go? Are those the ones that held the toxic chemicals that they don’t want us to look at? I don’t know; this is all speculative. I’m not accusing anybody of anything, just putting a natural central nervous system to the thought process [for an issue] of which the entire community is up in arms over. And I don’t blame them. This is more of the same behavior.”