By Gustavo Aguirre, Jr.
Arvin, CA: Oct. 15, 2014—On March 18, at 7 p.m., Matt Constantine, the director of public health, County Supervisor Leticia Perez and the Kern County Fire Department declared in front of Arvin City Council that the emergency evacuation of eight homes in Nelson Court was necessary due to elevated levels of natural gas inside the homes.
Arvin is a small community in the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley that has been identified by the state as an overburdened community in regard to pollution hazards and social vulnerabilities. Seven months after the evacuation, the affected residents are still not back in their homes and have no clear date when they will be able to return. The gas pipeline, owned by Petro Capital Resources (PCR), was used for oil production to transport excess natural gas from nearby tanks to a flare and had limited oversight.
Earlier that morning, at approximately 8 a.m. the residents of Nelson Court woke up to a knock on their door. They opened to find environmental and public health officials, who informed the residents that recently acquired test results showed gas levels inside their homes at “elevated levels.” At this point, it was suggested to them that they should leave their homes. Residents claim that the officials were very clear to state that this evacuation was voluntary, and not a mandatory one. Many residents decided to stay because their children were already in school, or because they felt that government officials did not communicate the full truth about the levels of gas concentration at the time.
Later in the day, at a City Council meeting, the same officials detailed that the situation had been aggravated and they were now requiring a mandatory evacuation since the gas concentrations were now at “explosive levels.”
Although shocking, this news was not unprecedented to the farm-working, mostly Hispanic neighborhood in south Kern because they had been reporting gas-like smells in their homes and neighborhood for months prior to the evacuation. Residents reported that the gas was mostly coming from outlets and fixtures around the homes. Before the attention of the county and city, the residents had reached out to PG&E, the local gas company, to find out if the leak might be coming from one of its lines. PG&E determined that in fact, there was a leak of gas, but it did not pertain to PG&E. To the homeowners’ surprise, they soon found out that the homes they worked so hard for were built on top of old, leaky petroleum production pipelines.
Arvin, like many other places in Kern County, is subject to deliberate oil exploration, which is often regulated poorly by government agencies that have limited oversight of the operations. These residents are now living the nightmare caused by poor regulatory authority and negligent practices by the industry and government that did not inform the residents of the danger under the homes. In fact, it is likely that other communities across Kern County and the state are built, literally, over unregistered, unidentified and unsupervised oil production pipelines because the state does not have a comprehensive understanding of the locations of these pipes.
After Constantine and Perez had briefed the City Council about the situation that was unfolding and the direct threat to residents, at about 8 p.m., Global Community Monitor (GCM) was invited by a resident to take a bucket air sample. GCM is a nonprofit organization that works with communities to collect community-based air samples in high toxic hot spots.
After the residents found out that GCM was there to take air samples, Elvia Garcia invited them into her home to take a sample in the room that most noticeably smelled of gas. This room was her daughter’s, who was living there while pregnant and had lived there through her full pregnancy. Her daughter stated that weeks before the evacuation she was suffering from nose bleeds, headaches and even occasional blackouts.
After GCM analyzed the results from the sample, it found more than 20 different gases and hydrocarbons at alarming levels. One of these chemicals was benzene. Benzene is a hazardous chemical that can cause adverse health effects after long-term and acute exposure and is even a known carcinogenic. Inside the home, benzene was found at alarming levels 23 times above the U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) health threshold standards for benzene exposure.
During the weeks following the evacuation, the residents were in the dark about the concentration of gases in their homes. At this point, the only data that had been disclosed to the families was the bucket sample that GCM took the day of the evacuation. Kern County Environmental Health granted full responsibility to the company, PCR, to clean up and remediate the location.
Naturally, PCR hired an independent company to do the sampling inside the evacuated homes. With this technique, the families were excluded from any public processes that could otherwise have been applicable if a public agency was responsible for the remediation process, including public information requests. The only thing this accomplished was to privatize the data collected from the homes and prevent the sampling data from being made public.
The County of Kern demonstrated that it has no clue where all these pipelines lay, and it does not have a proper emergency operations plan that affirmatively serves to protect residents or respond to oil production incidents. Kern County, the county with the most oil production and exploration in the state of California, completely lacks a comprehensive plan to remediate oil production incidents or even a plan that protects the residents from incidents to begin with.
Aside from the regulatory authority given to the county, this incident serves to demonstrate that state-level agencies are also unresponsive to regrettable incidents. The Department of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) is responsible to regulate oil production throughout the state. However, the DOGGR stated shortly after the disaster that it was not responsible for this leak or the lack of regulation because this pipeline was under four feet in diameter.
However, as the sole agency formed to regulate oil production, the DOGGR’s regulatory authority expands to all functions of oil exploration. Its regulatory authority is such that it can include any pipelines under an “environmentally sensitive” designation that would require continuous inspections of their integrity. It is incredible to think that a pipeline placed directly under the feet of residents did not get classified as “environmentally sensitive.” The stark reality is that the response from state and local agencies was irresponsible, to say the least.
For environmental justice organizations, this event and the lack of response serves as evidence for what is a grim picture for overburdened communities in California. In the past, similar, but less blatant incidents in San Bruno, Richmond and Los Angeles have yielded investigations, coordinated government responses and even legislation. In Arvin, however, a community in the top 10% of CalEnviroScreen 2.0, a tool used by the state to identify disadvantaged communities, no regulatory agency will even step up as being responsible for permitting or ensuring the safety of these pipes.
Overburdened communities in California, like Arvin, continue to be ignored by the public entities that are to serve them despite the overwhelming evidence that suggests their unfortunate conditions.
Gustavo Aguirre, Jr., is a project coordinator at Central California Environmental Justice Network. Born in California from migrant farm working parents, Gustavo grew up in the social and equality justice movement due to his grandfather’s and father’s involvement with the UFW and other environmental movements. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.