When methane started leaking out of a well at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility outside Los Angeles last October, noxious fumes blanketed the nearby Porter Ranch neighborhood for months. Residents complained of nausea, nosebleeds and vomiting; more than 8,000 families were forced out of their homes by the stench of the chemical odorant added to natural gas to help detect leaks.
Two thousand miles away, in a poor Alabama community, residents are complaining of similar symptoms after lightning struck equipment at an underground pipeline. An estimated 500 gallons of the same chemical spilled into the soil and groundwater, according to state environmental officials.
But, unlike in affluent, predominantly white Porter Ranch, residents in Eight Mile have been largely ignored, stuck for eight years with the stifling rotten egg stench that still hovers over the low-income, mostly African-American enclave just north of the Gulf of Mexico.
Residents say there have been no relocations to hotels or rented homes. No transfers to schools out of harm’s way. No U.S. Cabinet members swooping in to investigate. No national media hordes.
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“Because we don’t have the financial wherewithal to put pressure on these people, they simply turn their heads,” said Eight Mile resident Carletta Davis, one of hundreds of people suing Mobile Gas Service Corp. over the leak of the chemical mercaptan. “Our children are sick. … It’s absolutely an outrage.”
The two leaks have another thing in common: San Diego-based Sempra Energy owns and operates Aliso Canyon and, for most of the eight years since the lightning strike, it also owned the Eight Mile facility.
Sempra spokesman Art Larson referred all questions to Mobile Gas. He said the Eight Mile leak was discovered a few months before Sempra acquired the Alabama utility in October 2008; it sold the company last month. Mobile Gas declined to comment because of pending litigation.
At least three lawsuits out of 14 filed by hundreds of Eight Mile residents are still pending, according to Sempra Energy securities filings. The residents allege damage to health and property values. In one typical case, the lawsuit accuses Mobile Gas of continuing to expose residents to “noxious mercaptan pollution, which is annoying, unpleasant, obnoxious, disturbing, and harmful to the plaintiffs’ health.”
Mobile Gas acknowledged the leak in court documents but claimed that waste cleanup firms they had hired failed to get rid of the spilled chemical. Those firms did not return calls for comment.
Mercaptan, a class of chemical that includes compounds of sulfur and mercury, has been used for decades to give odor to natural gas and has been considered fairly harmless by government and industry. Whether the smell is the source of the illnesses in Porter Ranch and Eight Mile has been a subject of debate.
At the Aliso Canyon facility, mercaptan was released along with vast amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, during a leak from a single well.
The response from government officials was heightened by the potential for a catastrophic explosion and by significant air quality and climate change concerns. And yet it still took four months to seal the problem well.
‘Toxic’ to humans
At Eight Mile, only mercaptan — not natural gas — leaked in June 2008, according to Mobile Gas.
Robert Jackson, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, said a spill into groundwater, as at Eight Mile, could remain in plumes with irritating effects lasting for years.
“Our sense of smell is acutely sensitive to mercaptans,” Jackson said. “They’re irritants. They irritate our eyes. They’re designed to smell bad, to be unpleasant.”
Dr. Jeffrey Nordella, an urgent care physician in Porter Ranch, said he has been conducting his own research on mercaptan’s health effects since the Aliso Canyon leak.
“Mercaptan is toxic to the human body,” Nordella said. “The question is exposure — how much and for how long?”
Exactly how the chemical affects human health is unclear, though at least three workers have died after exposure to extremely high levels of methyl mercaptan, one of several variations of the chemical, according to reports by two federal agencies.
The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry cited a 1970 case of a 53-year-old worker who developed anemia, fell into a coma and later died after he opened and emptied tanks of the compound. He also suffered seizures, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency noted in a 2013 report.
In 1979, a 19-year-old was exposed to methyl mercaptan at high concentrations for a few minutes and died 45 minutes later as a result of respiratory arrest and heart failure. In 2001, a 24-year-old worker was found dead at a chemical factory with what tests showed were large quantities of methyl mercaptan in his liver, kidneys, lungs, blood and urine.
The EPA report said that exposure to methyl mercaptan even when not at those extreme levels can depress the central nervous system and affect respiratory function. Signs of exposure can include mucous membrane irritation, headache, dizziness, staggering gait, nausea and vomiting.
Seizures, nosebleeds, respiratory distress and more
Markell Williams was just 3 years old when a powerful chemical oozed into the soil and water less than a mile from his home. By age 5, he was having seizures.
His mother, Raquel Williams, 33, blames the chemical’s pungent smell that permeates the air in their community. Whenever the odor would grow strong — and it can hit with a blast that sometimes forces people to run for cover — it seemed to trigger Markell’s seizures with growing intensity and frequency, his mother said.
Over the last year, the seizures have become so frequent that Markell, now 11, has missed months of school.
“This year, he’s been hospitalized five times because his seizures didn’t get any better,” said Raquel Williams as she sat next to his hospital bed in September.
More than 1,300 residents have filled out health assessment questionnaires describing symptoms such as nosebleeds, respiratory distress, nausea, vomiting, seizures, vision problems and hypertension.
The Facebook page for the We Matter 8 Mile Community Association includes photos of infants and toddlers on ventilators, children with blood dripping from their noses and adults wearing medical masks to protect themselves from the stench.
But Davis, who is the association’s president, said that Mobile Gas and government officials are treating the problem as merely an unpleasant odor despite reports — for eight years running — that residents are being sickened.
Likening the struggle to the Flint, Mich., water crisis, Davis said she intends to keep fighting.
“Nobody is going to do this for us,” she said. “We’re just falling through the cracks.”
Mobile Gas response
On its website, Mobile Gas acknowledges that its investigation and treatment of the mercaptan spill “have taken a long time” because of complex geology and groundwater flow.
But it says that two water treatment systems built to remove mercaptan from surface water and groundwater have helped mitigate the problem.
The new owner of Mobile Gas, St. Louis, Mo.-based Spire Energy, said employees have not detected any odor. And recent visits by state environmental agents didn’t reveal any problems.
“What happened in Alabama only involved mercaptan, which has been safely used to odorize natural gas for nearly 100 years,” Spire Energy spokeswoman Jenny Gobble said in a statement. “There is no evidence linking low levels of mercaptan in the air to any lasting health effects.”
The company declined to discuss specific cases.
Eight Mile troubles
Dr. Mary McIntyre, chief medical officer for the Alabama Department of Public Health, said through a spokeswoman that the agency was working with other state and federal agencies to find solutions for the Eight Mile community, and it has also contacted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So far, though, the agencies “are unable to determine any association between reported conditions and the 2008 mercaptan spill,” she said.
The years of troubles in Eight Mile have led some residents to pack up and move. But most of the 3,000 residents don’t have the resources to leave.
The median income in Eight Mile in 2014 was $35,000, or more than $8,000 lower the state median. In Porter Ranch, by comparison, the median income in 2014 was $105,602, more than $44,000 higher than the California median income.
Southern California Gas paid more than $500 million to temporarily relocate about 8,000 Porter Ranch families and clean more than 1,700 homes. Eight Mile residents say they got nothing approaching that assistance. Some have settled their cases with Mobile Gas for undisclosed amounts. Local media reported that most settlement payouts ranged from $3,000 to $10,000 apiece.
Jeremiah Hollins, a 65-year-old retired truck driver, used to find relief when he boarded his rig for out-of-town trips. But, now in his retirement years, he said the constant smell of mercaptan is taking its toll.
“My doctor told me that I need to get out of this area,” Hollins said. Hollins wrestles with respiratory trouble and holds himself up with a walker because of trouble in his legs that he believes is made worse by breathing in mercaptan.
Marcus Richardson, 39, works as an environmental safety and health professional. Long before his headaches and nosebleeds began, he smelled a problem.
“I started smelling sulfur,” Richardson said. “I said, ‘Ma, I think you’ve got a gas leak.’ She didn’t have a gas leak. The whole community had a gas leak.”
Richardson thought he had escaped the effects of mercaptan when he left Eight Mile looking for a change of scenery. He moved in with a girlfriend in the Northridge area of Southern California, just two miles from the Aliso Canyon natural gas facility.
He was in Northridge when Aliso Canyon’s leak started Oct. 23.
“I got exposure on both ends,” said Richardson, who said he felt “pure outrage” over the contrast in how the leaks were handled in the two communities.
“The response that they had in California was immediate; it was swift,” Richardson said. “The prestige of that community propelled a swifter action than in this community.”
Dozens of Eight Mile residents marched on the state Capitol in Montgomery Oct. 13 to voice their yearslong frustrations to state leaders. They chanted “Eight Mile, we matter” and many wore surgical masks. By the time they boarded buses to go back home, the governor had agreed to meet with them.
“We will not stop until we get answers,” said DaShaun Taylor, holding a poster of her cousin breathing on a ventilator. “Because literally, as the signs say, we cannot breathe.”
Los Angeles Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.