Years after Aliso Canyon gas leak, residents say they face chronic health issues and want the facility closed

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Residents tell their stories of the Aliso Canyon gas blowout in front of SoCalGas' downtown LA headquarters. Photo by Justin Kloczko for KCRW.

Kelly Browne never knew she grew up near the second-largest gas storage facility in the country. But after it suffered a blowout, she began seeing its effects everywhere.

Her family moved to Porter Ranch in the 1970s. It’s among the wealthiest communities in the San Fernando Valley, with big houses and curving streets at the base of the Santa Susana Mountains. She remembers wild sheep, quail, and pine trees. 

Years later, she said things started to change. Large trees began to die out on her family’s English Tudor-style property. An oily, iridescent sheen appeared on the swimming pool. 

Then in late 2015, her mother, Margaret Learman, fell ill. Her bones turned brittle like styrofoam and her blood pressure was through the roof. One day Browne spoke with a local parent, whose family was relocating out of the area.

“It was that moment that I put two and two together. Why my mom was so sick, and why the dogs were throwing up, and why their ears were rotting, and why all the trees on their property were dying,” said Browne. 

Five years ago, an old well casing broke at the nearby SoCalGas-owned Aliso Canyon gas storage facility. And by the time the blowout was stopped four months later, 100,000 metric tons of methane unfurled into the air. It became the largest gas leak in American history. 

Thousands of residents have reported falling ill, experiencing everything from chronic coughs to cancer. Some believe it’s the cumulative effects of living for years next to the gas facility. Others point to toxins from the blowout such as benzene, a chemical found in natural gas known to cause cancer.

Browne’s father Richard Learman felt his physical condition change during the blowout. He started experiencing headaches of a different kind. 

“My physical condition just seemed to go down. I just wasn't myself,” said Learman.

He’s one of about 36,000 plaintiffs suing SoCalGas over the blowout, arguing the utility is responsible for illnesses. The massive trial is valued at $1-$2 billion, but has been delayed due to the pandemic.

Richard Learman’s wife Margaret, who was in her late 70s at the time of the blowout, was fairing much worse.

“My mom got sicker and sicker. And my dad took her to the doctor. And her blood pressure was 180. And then they went to St. Joseph's emergency room. And my mom's telling me, ‘Take care of your father, Kelly. I think I'm going to die,’” said Browne.

So Learman and his wife reluctantly moved out of Porter Ranch. In 2016, she received a diagnosis of multiple myeloma, a deadly cancer that accumulates in bone marrow. Last year, she passed away. And the family holds SoCalGas responsible.

While many in the neighborhood have documented health problems, it’s not so easy to tie them directly to Aliso Canyon.

After the blowout, the Los Angeles County Health Department tested 101 homes in Porter Ranch for a large range of toxic chemicals. It found dust contaminated with metals that could cause respiratory and skin irritations. But the department also said there are no long-term health risks. 

The county health department found benzene in the Learmans’ home, as well as in the soil at Aliso Canyon. It was also found in Margaret Learman’s body after she died, according to the family.

“The benzene is in her body along with some of the other chemicals that are showing up in the soil testing,” said Browne. 

However, SoCalGas and public agencies say that level of Benzene is too low to hurt you.

In a statement, SoCalGas cited a study by the state of California that concluded “nearly all” benzene concentrations in Porter Ranch are similar to levels found in the rest of LA. They cite research showing “no long-term risk to public health or safety from the gas leak.” 

But for every study, there’s another study. The World Health Organization has the strictest standards. It said there is no safe level of benzene in humans. Chronic exposure is an established cause of cancer, and it may cause multiple myeloma, according to the organization.

So who is right? You’ll get different answers depending on who you ask. The state of California says exposure to less than one part per billion of benzene over eight hours wouldn’t give you health problems. And the average benzene level in LA is about half that.

“However, there are many … peer-reviewed literature that has found health impacts below one part per billion,” said Diane Garcia-Gonzales, a UCLA climate researcher who studied air quality during the blowout. She looked for extra air pollutants and found them.

“We did come to the conclusion that this event was associated with chemicals and constituents that could have adverse health impacts,” she said. 

But a link between the blowout and illness? There is no definitive study yet. The county health department’s study is moving slowly.

In the meantime, Porter Ranch residents aren’t waiting for a jury or a study. They want Governor Newsom to make good on a promise to close Aliso Canyon.

At a recent protest in downtown LA, a roving car caravan circled SoCalGas headquarters while residents told their stories. Many have unexpectedly become environmentalists. 

“We're sending a message to Governor Newsom to keep his promise. … We're not going to stop until we get this dangerous facility that's poisoning the people of the San Fernando shut down,” said Porter Ranch resident Deirdre Bolona, a member of Save Porter Ranch. She said more and more people from the community have been developing various cancers and diseases they believe are from the Aliso Canyon facility. 

“We were sick on the couch with heart palpitations, sweating, skin rashes, just out. I think we slept for two hours just for being out there for 30 seconds,” said Matt Pakucko, co-founder of Save Porter Ranch. He said he still gets heart palpitations.

Pasted Image The faces of those affected by the Aliso Canyon blowout during a five-year anniversary protest. Photo by Justin Kloczko for KCRW. 

But how do you shut down a facility that 11 million people rely on for heating and cooking and electricity? That’s half of SoCalGas’ total customer base. Newsom has called for the California Public Utilities Commission to figure it out. That was a year ago. Since, use of the facility has actually increased.  

When asked about this, SoCalGas did not say whether the facility would remain open or closed. Instead, it pointed to a number of reasons why keeping it open was beneficial, such as keeping natural gas and electricity services affordable in Southern California.

But Kelly Browne is afraid the damage from toxic exposure has already been done. 

“The evidence is clear. If it's in my body, and it's in my father's body and my mother's body, what does that mean? Does that mean that I'm going to get cancer and die? Because that's how I feel right now,” said Browne.