Environmental injustice can occur anywhere, and this Christmas, a gated community of 30,000 residents in the scenic hills of Los Angeles proved this point.
The community of Porter Ranch, known for its comfortable upscale suburban setting of culs-de-sac and family-friendly neighborhoods, has been besieged by the effects of a natural gas leak from a Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) facility in Aliso Canyon, just outside the development. Thousands of residents have been complaining of headaches, nosebleeds, vomiting and nausea from the atmospheric leak, which is caused by a ruptured pipe more than 7,000 feet below the earth's surface. The impact on the community has been massive enough that it has garnered the attention of environmental activist Erin Brockovich (best known for a landmark environmental justice case against Pacific Gas & Electric in the 1990s).
"At this rate," says Brockovich, "in just one month, the leak will have accounted for one-quarter of the total estimated methane emissions in the state of California."
So much for new clean air strategies.
Last week, the Los Angeles city attorney's office negotiated an agreement with the company to step up its response to residents' demands for relocation and aid. Under the agreement, SoCalGas has 72 hours to find housing for any families that request relocation. It must also provide shelter for pets if necessary and provide security patrols while the houses are uninhabited.
The company initially contested a court or order requiring relocation, on the grounds that it was already offering that assurance. But residents told Brockovich they were put on a priority list and had to wait weeks to get a response.
The company is also being sued by residents, who say they were sickened by the gas emissions and were forced to pay for their own relocation. The actual dollar amount of the suit won't be tallied until the leak is stopped and the families are able to move back to their homes. At this point, SoCalGas says it may not have the leak fixed before March 2016.
And the gas company's troubles don't stop there. The city is investigating the matter and plans to depose company officials over the scandal, which has also led the local school board to close two schools for safety reasons. With as much as 110,000 pounds (50,000 kilograms) of gas being emitted per hour, the Federal Aviation Administration has also imposed a no-fly zone over the area to reduce the chance of pilots and passengers becoming affected by the plume.
Of course, the question that seems salient at this point is not just why it has taken two months for SoCalGas, the city attorney's office and CARB to prioritize this crisis, but why impact from environmental problems seem to be growing in size as well.
On the other side of the country, the city of Flint, Michigan, and the ongoing investigations into the lead poisoning of its residents offer another example of an environmental crisis in the making. Like the impact of SoCalGas' ruptured pipe leak, the number of victims in Flint is now at crisis proportions, with thousands of children being diagnosed with lead poisoning (an often irreversible condition). It took more than a year of health reports from doctors, along with an election promise and the concerted effort of one incoming mayor, to declare a state of emergency.
Fortunately, SoCalGas is attempting to address the leak quickly. But the size and location, the company says, may lead to months of effort (and months more of methane emissions), rendering much of the sedate community that is best known, ironically, for its iconic role as the location for Steven Spielberg's breakout movie "ET" as an environmental no-man's land for upscale suburbans who relish the cleaner air and quieter life of Los Angeles living.
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.