The Tale Of Two Cities

Over near Porter Ranch, SoCal Gas’s catastrophic natural gas leak continually belches a noxious black cloud.  Besides emitting enough planet warming methane to fill the Empire State Building every day, it’s giving residents headaches, dizziness, nausea, and nosebleeds. They’re breathing methyl mercaptan that, at very high levels, can cause anemia and internal bleeding; benzene, a known carcinogen; and radon, a radioactive gas. 
 
The response from state and federal elected officials and regulators is exactly the right one. Mike Gatto, Assemblyman from Southern California, announced hearings near Porter Ranch where gas company officials and regulators will face the music.
 
The US EPA has also opened an investigation into the leak, as disclosed in a letter from the agency to Representative Brad Sherman. Next year, he plans to push for stronger standards for the safe storage and transmission of gas.
 
LA City Attorney Mike Feuer already stepped up to the plate. He’s forcing a faster SoCal Gas evacuation of thousands of affected residents, and even wants the company to pick up the tab for boarding residents’ pets. Feuer’s planning to depose key SoCal Gas employees about what caused the leak at one of the biggest fracked natural gas storage facilities in the country to “assure it never happens again.” 
 
Compare all this to the Exide lead battery recycling scandal. Longtime East LA residents lived for decades with noxious, acidic fumes the recycler emitted as it broke apart used batteries and smelted the leftover lead for resale. They complained of headaches, coughs, and eye inflammation.
 
More insidiously, the lead particles that blanketed neighborhoods built up to hazardous waste levels in people’s yards and fell into the Los Angeles River. This poison was colorless and odorless but capable of inflicting untold physical and mental damage from chronic exposure. 
 
Regulators from the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) knew of the high levels of lead and arsenic for years, and did little. It took a US Attorney to force Exide to close and put up $50 million for cleanup in exchange for suspending criminal prosecution. That was the state's job to do. Now, the DTSC's director denies there is a public health emergency in the face of far more contamination than $50 million will ever clean up. 
 
Prompted by the Exide scandal, state Senate leader Kevin de León spearheaded broad reforms at DTSC, including creating an independent review panel, to make sure that another Exide doesn't happen again. 
 
Porter Ranch happens to be the wealthiest neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. In 2008 dollars, its median household income was $121,428. In 2000, its population was 61 percent white. East LA, the 2010 US Census reported, is 97 percent Latino. The median household income is barely $38,000 with 27 percent of the population living below the federal poverty line.
 
The response to environmental disasters on the part of elected officials, prosecutors, and regulators should be immediate, thorough, and transparent. Just the way that, so far, the response to the natural gas leak in Porter Ranch is unfolding. Ideally, it should lead to real reform. In the case of the Porter Ranch leak, the disaster should lead to a faster transition away from fracking and burning of natural gas.
 
But we need to reverse the toxic harm we've inflicted on so many other communities. We need to do something to protect the health of future generations that will be the ones to battle the potentially catastrophic global warming we have already unleashed. And our response should never be determined by ZIP code. 

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