Out of Smell, Out of Mind

“Witnesses cannot ask questions of the parties, lawyers or the Hearing Board”

-South Coast AQMD Hearing Board

A good way of determining how long someone has lived in my neighborhood is to ask them which “city” they live in. Long-time residents will state that we are in Northridge, which, according to the City of Los Angeles, is the official designation of our area. However, newer residents are likely to refer to Porter Ranch. Since the two areas share the same zip code, their real estate agents simply used the designation that had a better reputation (and higher housing prices) and it stuck. With the months-long natural gas leak affixing itself to the Porter Ranch name, realtors will probably revert to using Northridge, at least for the near future.

While amorphous neighborhood designations cannot protect against escaping gas, favorable wind patterns have mostly kept the rotten egg smell from accumulating around my house. However, the leak and Sempra Energy’s reaction to it have raised many questions about what is going on in the hills above my house. In the Air Quality Management District’s (AQMD) timeline of events, they learned of the leak from the complaints of residents. Some residents have reported that Sempra Energy denied that there was a leak when they made their first phone calls to find out about the smell. While City Councilman Mitch Englander’s representative was giving him credit for ordering Sempra Energy to help relocate residents at this month’s Northridge East Neighborhood Council meeting, he and the company only stopped denying the health effects being caused by the leak after the county stepped in and ordered that a relocation plan be implemented. What else have the company and our government representatives lied about in the decades that this facility has operated? While thousands have been temporarily relocated because the smell has made them sick, is the real danger lurking in the chemicals that cannot be smelled?

My wife was a toddler when her family moved into the hills above Northridge in 1976. The house that she grew up in is down the block from one of the two LAUSD schools that have been temporarily shuttered because of the leak. Ten years after this move, (at the age of 39), her father died of leukemia. As a teenager, my wife was treated for Graves Disease, an autoimmune condition that affects the thyroid gland. At 23 she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Two of my daughters are on the autism spectrum. It has always been assumed that these were all just a coincidence, but the lack of transparency during the leak has exposed doubt. There was no family history of any of these issues. Could the site be sending chemicals into the environment that somehow contributed to one family’s tragedies?  How many other families have suffered through similar stories?

During the second public hearing on the AQMD’s stipulated agreement with Sempra Energy, it was revealed that if this agreement is approved by the hearing board, the company will not be able to use odor suppressants without the explicit approval. The fact that this “solution” was even considered once again exposes the need for better oversight of Sempra Energy’s actions, especially after it was revealed that the suppressant that they wanted to use contained a chemical that was recently added to the list of Proposition 65 chemicals that can be carcinogens or cause reproductive harm. As much as residents are inconvenienced by the smell of rotten eggs, that smell has done its job of warning them of potential danger. Removing the smell while the danger still exists is not in anyone’s best interest.