The Lessons We Didn’t Learn From the Largest Gas Leak in U.S. History
By Byron Chan
Almost 15,000 residents of Los Angeles' Porter Ranch neighborhood evacuated their homes in the fall of 2015, many of them suffering from headaches, breathing problems and nosebleeds. The culprit: a massive leak of carcinogenic chemicals at SoCalGas's nearby Aliso Canyon underground gas storage facility. From October 2015 until February 2016, the facility expelled more than 100,000 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere.
Three years later, community residents continue to suffer severe health effects. In a lawsuit filed on Oct. 15, Los Angeles firefighters who responded to the leak stated that they also continue to experience "nosebleeds, migraine headaches, dizziness, skin rashes, sleeping difficulties, and breathing difficulties. Some now battle cancer."
And yet, agencies and underground gas storage operators continue to show a shocking lack of initiative to regulate and share information about the toxic pollutants in stored gas. No regulatory agency has tried to force operators to reveal the gas' chemical composition. Without this information, scientists cannot determine the leak's risks to human health.
Kyoko Hibino sought emergency room treatment soon after the Aliso Canyon facility began spewing methane in October 2015. She, her partner and their cats had to relocate.Edward Clynes / Earthjustice
"The public health department consistently delivered messages to the community that are misleading," one Porter Ranch resident told the Los Angeles Daily News this week. "They showed no justice and had unexplained delays and inactions."
This problem isn't limited to Aliso Canyon. California has 12 underground gas storage facilities: four in southern California, seven in northern California, and one in central California with a total capacity to store just under 400 billion cubic feet of gas. For a sense of scale, that's a lot. One billion cubic feet is enough to fuel about five million U.S. homes for a day.
What We Don't Know About the Toxic Chemicals in Gas Wells
Many folks don't know that California's underground gas storage facilities are in depleted gas or oil fields. These were not originally designed for high-pressure gas storage. (The Aliso Canyon underground gas storage facility, for example, is in a depleted oil field originally drilled by the Getty family in the 1950s.)
Chemical contaminants left over from oil operations combine with injected gas during underground storage. These contaminants are emitted into our air during gas leaks. We simply do not have enough information about just how terrible that chemical cocktail is for us. And that's by design–there's no regulation requiring companies like SoCalGas to disclose the composition of toxic chemicals in their gas wells.
SoCalGas Aliso Canyon, CA 5min youtu.be
Public health and energy scientists from the California Council on Science and Technology recently presented their findings on the human health hazards of underground gas storage at a workshop in Los Angeles. At the workshop, the scientists emphasized that a lack of access to data on the composition of gas at Aliso Canyon and other underground gas storage facilities significantly limited the scope and detail of their assessment.
The clearly frustrated scientists concluded, "the responses [from underground gas storage operators to data requests] make clear that information on the levels of toxic air contaminants (other than sulfur compounds) will likely not be available without a mandate from the responsible regulatory agency or agencies."
A Health Study With No Teeth
Now, as part of the settlement agreement between SoCalGas and state agencies, SoCalGas has agreed to pay $25 million for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health to study the long-term impacts of exposure to emissions from gas leaks. That health study, however, will again have to rely on the voluntary cooperation of SoCalGas.
We believe that's an inherently flawed approach. In comments to the California Air Resources Board on the limitations of the Aliso Canyon settlement agreement, Earthjustice noted the inherent self-interest of underground gas storage operators, including SoCalGas, to withhold key information about toxic pollutants in gas.
A truck leaves the Aliso Canyon facility.Edward Clynes / Earthjustice
Without an independent study based on complete information, the health impacts from the toxic pollutants in stored gas will never be fully understood and addressed. It'll be another good idea with no follow-through. The families in Porter Ranch and the wider San Fernando Valley will not get the answers they deserve about their nosebleeds, their headaches or their breathing difficulties.
The health effects of the Aliso Canyon gas leak are just the latest indication of how little we know about stored gas and the lack of regulatory oversight to match the dangers of underground gas storage facilities. The toothless health study laid out in the Aliso Canyon settlement is a grave discredit to the community residents and emergency first-responders who suffered, and continue to suffer, significant health impacts from the Aliso Canyon gas leak.
In all, Aliso Canyon must serve as a constant reminder for California: it's time to get off natural gas. Natural gas infrastructure leaks. There's no way around that. At every turn from our energy grid to our vehicles and our buildings, we can kick gas to the curb and choose cleaner, safer options instead.
The Porter Ranch communityDave Getzschman / Earthjustice
Byron Chan is an associate attorney with the California regional office of Earthjustice.
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Where Does the Deficiency Begin?<p>Nobody knows exactly how much vitamin D a person actually needs. The question of when a deficiency starts is correspondingly controversial. However, vitamin D is becoming increasingly popular.Not only is the pseudo-scientific literature on the "sun vitamin" experiencing an upswing, but the number of published studies has also increased enormously in recent years. For example, in 2019 <a href="https://academic.oup.com/edrv/article/40/4/1109/5126915" target="_blank">a study found that</a> Vitamin D is responsible for keeping the skeleton functional and is associated with cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and various types of cancer. <br></p>
An All-Rounder<p>Vitamin D levels in the body rise and fall according to sun exposure. If sufficient UV rays reach the skin, the body is able to produce the vitamin itself. However, the human body only derives an estimated 10 to 20 percent of its daily requirement from food.</p><p>The vitamin D that we synthesize from sunlight or food is not biologically active at first. Before the kidneys can produce the biologically active form of the vitamin, known as calcitriol, and release it into the blood, some metabolic processes must take place beforehand.</p><p>In addition, many organs have receptors to which the precursor of calcitriol binds. Further, this substance is also present in blood.</p><p>From this precursor, the organs then produce calcitriol themselves, which the body then uses for countless other processes in the body. This form of vitamin D thus regulates insulin secretion, inhibits tumor growth, and promotes the formation of red blood cells as well as the survival and activity of macrophages, which are important for the <a href="https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/5/7/2502/htm" target="_blank">immune system.</a></p>
Low Vitamin D, Severe COVID-19 Disease?<p>A research study carried out <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352364620300067?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">at the University of Hohenheim</a> has now established a link between vitamin D deficiency, certain previous diseases, and severe cases of COVID-19.</p><p>According to the study, "there is a lot of evidence that several non-communicable diseases (high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, metabolic syndrome) are associated with low vitamin D plasma levels. These comorbidities, together with the often accompanying vitamin D deficiency, increase the risk of severe COVID-19 events."</p><p>"This statement is completely correct," said Martin Fassnacht, head of endocrinology at the University Hospital of Würzburg. However, he qualifies that it is a pure association, "i.e. a mere observation that these events occur together.</p><p>Dr. Fassnacht is very critical of the hype surrounding vitamin D, but not because he denies the vitamin serves important functions. However, studies on humans have not been able to show that vitamin D has the healing powers many often propagate.</p><p>Fassnacht says, "If you take a closer look, the hopes that the administration of vitamin D has a healing effect have not been confirmed so far."</p>
Association Versus Intervention Studies<p>Many studies on the vitamin are association or observational studies. "By definition, these studies cannot prove the causal relationship, but only point to mere correlations," said Fassnacht. The physician tries to illustrate this with an example:</p><p>"Imagine two groups of 80-year-olds. One group is spry, active and does sports. If you compare them with another group living in nursing homes, the difference in vitamin D levels will be dramatic. Life expectancy would also be extremely different."</p><p>But to try to explain the difference in fitness by vitamin D status alone is far too simplistic. "Vitamin D levels are a good measure of how sick someone is. But not more," says Fassnacht. </p><p>According to Fassnacht, none of the intervention studies carried out to date -- that specifically examined the effect of vitamin D on various diseases -- has been able to confirm the previous association and laboratory studies or the presumed positive effect of vitamin D.</p>
Further Research Is Needed<p>"If a coronavirus infection is suspected, it is therefore absolutely necessary to check the vitamin D status and quickly correct any possible deficit," said the recommendation of the paper published by the University of Hohenheim.</p><p>"Studies are underway to see whether vitamin D helps in COVID-19 infection, but I personally do not believe that this is really the case," says endocrinologist Fassnacht. Nevertheless, he says it is of course useful to carry out these studies.<br></p><p>"I don't want to rule out that there are actually subgroups of people who benefit from an additional vitamin D dose," he says. After all, this has been proven to be the case with a severe deficit.</p><p>In view of the study situation, Fassnacht does not think much of preventive, nationwide vitamin D substitutes. "My belief that the vitamin helps somewhere is very low. But, of course, I can be wrong."</p>
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