These two areas highlight the abysmal failure of utilities and lawmakers as thousands of local residents continue to suffer. What's important to remember, however, is that these travesties aren't just isolated incidents—they might be much closer to home than you think.
1. Both areas were in dire emergency long before official declarations
Flint: Local and state-level declarations of emergency were made by Flint Mayor Karen Weaver and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder in December 2015 and January, respectively. However, the problem started way back in April 2014, when an unelected state official switched the city’s main water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River to save money. On Jan. 16, President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint. Such a declaration allocates up to $5 million in federal funds to the city. It also authorizes the Federal Emergency Management Agency to galvanize supplies and distribute water bottles, filters and other supplies.
Porter Ranch: Compared to poverty-stricken Flint, government action has been noticeably faster for the affluent Los Angeles neighborhood. Following months of pressure from activists and residents, California Gov. Jerry Brown issued a state of emergency on Jan. 6 over the gas leak—the biggest in U.S. history—that has spewed 86,000 metric tons of methane and counting into the atmosphere since Oct. 23, when the leak was first reported. The order means “all necessary and viable actions” will be taken to stop the leak and ensure that the Southern California Gas Company (SoCal Gas), which owns the leaking natural gas injection well, is held accountable for the damage. A federal state of emergency has yet to be declared.
2. Environmental contamination and noxious greenhouse gases spell trouble for the planet
Flint: Research has found that the water in the Flint River is 19 times more corrosive than Lake Huron’s water, causing the city's aging pipes to degrade and leach lead into the water. Water samples indicated an average lead concentration level of 2,000 ppb (parts per billion) with the the highest level recorded at 13,200 ppb, The Guardian reported, putting lead levels 200-1,300 times higher than the World Health Organization standards of 10ppb. When used for irrigation, lead-contaminated water can cause toxicity levels in garden and urban soil and cause poisoning if it enters the food chain through fruits and vegetables.
Porter Ranch: The leak, deemed the worst environmental disaster since the BP oil spill, has since spread across the Los Angeles San Fernando Valley, according to new research from Cambridge-based nonprofit, Home Energy Efficiency Team. The Los Angeles Times reported that "the leak is so large it will measurably set back not just the city’s but the entire state’s greenhouse gas emission targets, effectively erasing nearly a decade’s worth of statewide emission reductions." Methane is a dangerous greenhouse gas that accelerates climate change.
3. Many people, especially children, have suffered from health problems
Flint: Lead, which has no safe blood level, has been entering the city's drinking water through corroded pipes and plumbing materials. Exposure to this toxic metal is considered most harmful to children and fetuses because they absorb lead more easily than adults. Lead can damage people's kidneys, blood, and nervous system and progress to coma, convulsions or death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 27,000 Flint children have been exposed to lead in the city’s water, according to The Detroit News. Additionally, 87 people have been diagnosed with Legionnaires' disease. Ten of those who were sickened have died.
Porter Ranch: More than 2,500 families have fled their homes and more than 1,000 children have been relocated to other schools. Residents reported symptoms related to the exposure of natural gas such as nausea, vomiting, headaches and respiratory problems. Not only that, a Los Angeles city councilman called on SoCal Gas last week to extend residential relocation assistance to residents in Granada Hills, Chatsworth and Northridge who live near the Aliso Canyon gas leak above Porter Ranch. Even pets are suffering from ailments similar to their owners, such as nose bleeds, nausea and rashes, ABC 7 reported. As residents flee, businesses in the neighborhood are also struggling to stay open.
4. A disaster in the making. Lawmakers and utilities, now facing mounting lawsuits, ignored aging infrastructure
Flint: "The fact is," as LA Progressive wrote, "that the pipes conducting water from the Flint River are and have long been highly corrosive and have been leaching lead into the city’s potable water system. Pipes to each home and business, including sink and shower faucets, have been directly affected through both negligence and lack of regular maintenance by the city authorities." On Tuesday, amid calls for resignation and a growing number of lawsuits, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder apologized and admitted that he failed Flint residents. According to emails released to the public on Wednesday, Snyder was informed of Flint's water quality issues in as early as February 2015 but his administration said the problems would eventually “fade in the rearview.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also acknowledged on Tuesday it did not respond fast enough to the water crisis.
Porter Ranch: Similarly, California's aging pipeline infrastructure and poorly managed storage facilities have been put under the microscope. "The gas leak comes from a broken well that was last inspected in 1976," as Earthworks observed. "The LA Weekly reports that the well’s safety valve was inexplicably removed in 1979." SoCal Gas now faces a class-action lawsuit alleging that the gas company removed safety valves on Aliso Canyon gas storage wells that lead to the massive methane leak.
5. The disasters in Flint and Porter Ranch could easily happen to your city
Beyond Flint: Think your water is safe to drink? A Vox report stated that "children in essentially every city in America are being exposed to hazardous levels of toxic lead, and very little is being done about it." And if lead contamination isn't bad enough, "a 2009 New York Times investigation found that more than 62 million Americans had been exposed to drinking water that did not meet some government health guidelines," as PRI observed. "A 2011 analysis by Environmental Working Group found that more than 100 million people in 43 states were drinking water contaminated with trihalomethanes—a dangerous chemical that’s the byproduct of a chlorine reaction."
Beyond Porter Ranch: While Porter Ranch has everyone's attention, natural gas leaks are persistent and widespread across the country. A team from Environmental Defense Fund found an average of about one natural gas leak for every mile driven in New York City’s Staten Island, one leak for every 200 miles in Indianapolis and one leak for every three miles in Chicago. “Events of this size are rare, but major leakage across the oil and gas supply chain is not,” Director of Environmental Defense Fund’s California Oil & Gas program Tim O’Connor said in a statement. “There are plenty of mini-Aliso Canyons that add up to a big climate problem—not just in California, but across the country.”
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