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Flint Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

The Aliso Canyon gas leak shows that environmental disasters are happening across the country.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

As fracking moves from remote mountainsides to the suburbs and cities of America, more and more Americans are living next door to oil drills and diesel trucks. But in Los Angeles, oil wells have been a ubiquitous part of the city’s landscape for nearly a century. Formerly the center of global oil production, today one in three Angelenos live within a mile of a drilling site. But what once was a landscape perforated with wells is now home to an industry landscaped into anonymity: One rig is camouflaged as an innocuous office building about a mile off the city’s famous Museum Row, another hides behind a massive wall at a shopping mall in West Hollywood.

That’s why the Aliso Canyon natural gas leak came as a shock to many residents. The leak—decried as the worst in California history—at a storage facility in Los Angeles County has spewed toxic chemicals into Southern California’s air for over 100 days, emitting 80,000 metric tons of methane and forcing thousands of residents in the affluent neighborhood of Porter Ranch to evacuate. It took over a month of pressure from politicians, media, and residents for the responsible utility company, Southern California Gas Company, to begin working to staunch the leak, and another month for Governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency.

As dire as the Porter Ranch emergency is, it’s hardly an isolated environmental disaster. Like the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, Porter Ranch is the story of a government unable or unwilling to protect its citizens from basic infrastructure malfunctions, of regulatory bodies so fractured that no responsible party emerges. As these simultaneous disasters have shown, it’s a story that could happen all across America.

Los Angeles is the largest urban oil field in the country, home to over 5,000 oil and gas wells, both active and storage, that account for over 100,000 jobs and $8 million annually of the county’s economy. Most of these wells are, unlike Porter Ranch, located in poor or minority communities who live with the health and environmental consequences on a daily basis, often times unknowingly. For these communities, Porter Ranch is a high-profile example of the problems they’ve struggled with for years in a city and county where ineffectual guidelines and a bureaucratic quagmire have derailed attempts at regulation.

In Los Angeles, 70 percent of wells are located within 1,500 feet of “sensitive” land uses like schools and hospitals. That proximity makes problems with L.A.’s vague regulation and lax implementation nearly inevitable. Current laws allow oil companies to convert wells built for storage into active sites, and vice versa, without considering the complex geological requirements needed for each. The leaking Aliso Canyon well, for instance, was originally built for oil production in the 1950s, but converted to storage in the ’70s without an update.

It wasn’t until after the Porter Ranch leak that the Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) released its first round of draft rules as part of an apparent move to cover its bases retroactively. “There aren’t a whole lot of standards,” said Briana Mordick, a geologist specializing in oil and natural gas at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The rules are generic, and they’re also not very comprehensive. … What it boils down to at the end is a suggestion for how to do things but not a lot of really clear standards.”

There may not be many rules, but there’s certainly a lot of bureaucracy. Wells fall under the purview of eight different governmental organizations, creating a complicated web where agencies respond inconsistently, shirking responsibility and laying blame on their counterparts. What’s worse, the city has not had a petroleum administrator, the government official tasked with overseeing oil and gas, since the early 1990s—giving companies freer reign to interpret current rules and for violations to languish. City officials told the Los Angeles Times in January that they don’t have a proactive way to check whether oil and gas companies are sticking to the paltry regulations that do exist.

On October 8, two weeks before the Porter Ranch leak, DOGGR openly admitted its own ineffectiveness. In a report covering 2011 to 2014, the agency found “outdated regulations that in some cases do not address the modern oil and gas extraction environment.” It also concluded, vaguely, that “suboptimal regulatory performance” is the root cause of most problems. About a week before the leak, the agency issued orders to shut down 33 injection wells in Northern California that had not been permitted properly, the latest in a wave of such closings.  

Regulatory agencies have come under serious scrutiny in the wake of the disaster, but even the substandard help Porter Ranch has received is the envy of other, less affluent and non-white communities, according to Gladys Limón, an attorney with the California-based environmental justice organization Communities for a Better Environment. “It raises questions as to the disparate responses and accountability of these same officials when it comes to communities of color and low-income communities that have been suffering from very similar health impacts and safety risks for years, and who have called for similar measures but to no avail,” she said. 

In a largely black and Latino community in south L.A., for instance, residents have complained about monitoring and regulations for over a year. While the gas company recently suspended a request to drill more wells, the community hasn’t received further action from the city. At the AllenCo gas site near Long Beach—which was finally shut down in November after years of complaintsresidents made over 200 phone calls to their air quality board, which regulates emissions, before inspectors visited the site, only to be sickened themselves. In November, Communities for a Better Environment sued the city over alleged illegal and discriminatory well permitting and inadequate environmental protections in communities of color. 

The Porter Ranch leak should soon be sealed, according to SoCal Gas, but it will take much longer to change the system in L.A., if at all. Scientists have encouraged following the lead of states like Colorado and North Dakota, which have instituted buffer zones around sites, to protect residents against more leaks. But the government’s sluggish movement thus far offers little confidence that such recommendations will be heeded. 

If nothing else, Porter Ranch should spread understanding among residents that they’re living amongst oilrigs. “I hope that Porter Ranch will build enough momentum for folks to see that these facilities operating so close to a neighborhood is dangerous,” said Bhavna Shamasunder, a professor at Occidental College who studies environmental justice issues related to oil and gas, “that there is a real and omnipresent danger.”