Too easy on pol­luters

Brown talks a green game, but state hasn’t cracked down in bad cases

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - steve.lopez@latimes.com

Do reg­u­la­tors in Cal­i­for­nia have your back when util­i­ties or in­dus­tries run amok, or when there’s a threat to public health in your neigh­bor­hood?

We’d all like to think so, but there’s a long his­tory of co­zi­ness be­tween reg­u­la­tors, in­dus­try ti­tans and politi­cians. So you’d have to be a hope­less op­ti­mist, or a very trust­ing soul. And maybe you missed sto­ries about the state Public Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion’s ac­tions and in­ac­tions prior to the deadly 2010 PG&E gas line ex­plo­sion in San Bruno, or the agency’s botched han­dling of the San Onofre nu­clear plant clo­sure in 2014, in which ratepay­ers got stiffed.

And two cur­rent sto­ries have skep­tics won­der­ing whether state reg­u­la­tors are watch­dogs or lap dogs.

In Porter Ranch, lots of res­i­dents just aren’t buy­ing the claim by state

reg­u­la­tors that it was safe for the Aliso Canyon nat­u­ral gas fa­cil­ity to re­sume limited op­er­a­tions less than two years af­ter the most hu­mon­gous meth­ane leak in U.S. his­tory forced thou­sands of res­i­dents to re­lo­cate for months.

“I’m feel­ing so sick, I’ve started pack­ing,” said Jane Fowler, a Granada Hills res­i­dent who doesn’t even know where she’s go­ing yet.

Fowler is feel­ing lousy again, like she did for years. Be­fore the big leak, she had at­trib­uted her bloat­ing, hair loss, body aches and pro­fuse per­spi­ra­tion to menopause. But each time she trav­eled out of state, the symp­toms dis­ap­peared. When she re­turned home, the symp­toms were back.

In South­east Los An­ge­les County, where the Ex­ide bat­tery re­cy­cling plant spit poi­son into the air for decades and threat­ened the health of an es­ti­mated 100,000 nearby res­i­dents, the state has re­fused to re­lease thor­ough in­for­ma­tion about lead con­tam­i­na­tion. And of 10,000 prop­er­ties that may be fouled, only 2,500 are part of a cur­rent cleanup plan that’s mov­ing at a snail’s pace.

“Years go by and we’re not get­ting the in­for­ma­tion,” Teresa Mar­quez, pres­i­dent of Moth­ers of East Los An­ge­les, said in a story by my col­leagues Tony Bar­boza and Ben Pos­ton. “We don’t even know what houses they’re clean­ing.” A huge toxic scan­dal

Last year I toured the neigh­bor­hoods around the shut-down Ex­ide plant and talked to res­i­dents about their fears that lead poi­son­ing will cause — or has al­ready caused — disease, de­vel­op­men­tal is­sues and low IQs among chil­dren. Some won­dered why their low-in­come, mostly Latino com­mu­ni­ties were still wait­ing for help even as Gov. Brown vis­ited the more af­flu­ent Porter Ranch and de­clared an emer­gency.

The reg­u­la­tory agency in­volved in the Ex­ide cleanup is the state Depart­ment of Toxic Sub­stances Con­trol, which has with­held key de­tails from soil sam­pling data re­quested by The Times, ar­gu­ing that dis­clo­sure would com­pro­mise the pri­vacy of res­i­dents. Huh? As our story noted, “More than half of the house­holds sur­veyed re­cently by county health of­fi­cials re­ported that they have not re­ceived results from the soil test­ing com­pleted in their yards.”

Like I said last year, this was one of the most shock­ing cases of cor­po­rate malfea­sance and reg­u­la­tory fail­ure in state his­tory, with reg­u­la­tors fail­ing to crack down for decades.

It’s un­con­scionable that the state still isn’t mov­ing any faster than it is.

Liza Tucker of Con­sumer Watch­dog said peo­ple of color of­ten live in ar­eas with more pol­lu­tion, but the Aliso Canyon reopening sug­gests Cal­i­for­nia’s reg­u­la­tory neg­li­gence is col­or­blind.

“There are big reg­u­la­tory cracks in the sys­tem,” Tucker said. “Cal­i­for­nia is do­ing a ter­ri­ble job of pro­tect­ing peo­ple from po­ten­tial disas­ters, and the rea­sons are many, but one ma­jor one is reg­u­la­tory cap­ture. That’s the coopt­ing of the ad­min­is­tra­tion by busi­nesses, and it starts at the top.… You have a sit­u­a­tion where the gov­er­nor has ac­cepted mil­lions of dol­lars from en­ergy com­pa­nies that helped … him and leg­is­la­tors get elected and stay elected.”

Is Brown green?

Con­sumer Watch­dog has long ar­gued that for a guy with such a green rep­u­ta­tion, Brown is a good friend to fos­sil fuel in­dus­tries. In a news re­lease last week, Tucker said nu­mer­ous de­ci­sions by his ad­min­is­tra­tion have boosted stock at Sem­pra En­ergy, where his sis­ter Kathleen has prof­ited hand­somely as a board mem­ber. Tucker noted that South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Gas Co., a Sem­pra sub­sidiary, got the go-ahead from Brown-ap­pointed reg­u­la­tors at the PUC and the state Di­vi­sion of Oil, Gas, and Geother­mal Re­sources to re­open its Aliso Canyon fa­cil­ity.

“That place has been opened without proper en­vi­ron­men­tal or seis­mic test­ing,” said Tucker. “We should not have hu­man be­ings liv­ing on top of a nat­u­ral gas time bomb.”

She dis­puted the state’s ar­gu­ment that Aliso is crit­i­cal to main­tain­ing power avail­abil­ity in the re­gion, say­ing Aliso pro­vides con­ve­nient stor­age for gas that is bought when prices are low and sold when prices rise.

Brown spokesman Evan Westrup wasn’t buy­ing any of it. He called the con­flictof-in­ter­est claim in­volv­ing the gov­er­nor’s sis­ter base­less. Westrup also said that in the spirit of the gov­er­nor’s cli­mate change tar­get, Brown has asked the chair of the state En­ergy Com­mis­sion to be­gin plan­ning for the even­tual clo­sure of Ali­son Canyon. In the mean­time, Westrup said, the ap­proval for limited op­er­a­tion of Aliso was guided by “facts, science, ob­jec­tive anal­y­sis” and the “fo­cus is the health and safety of res­i­dents, pe­riod.”

A PUC state­ment listed nu­mer­ous tests and pre­cau­tions that were in­sti­tuted be­fore al­low­ing the fa­cil­ity to re­sume op­er­at­ing “at greatly re­duced ca­pac­ity.”

“While these ag­gres­sive new safety pro­to­cols take ef­fect,” said the state­ment, “the in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the cause of the … leak con­tin­ues.”

So what’s the rush?

But why not fin­ish that in­ves­ti­ga­tion first?

That’s what L.A. County of­fi­cials wanted to know, and as my col­league Nina Agrawal re­ported, that very ques­tion was cen­tral to a law­suit the county filed against the state and the gas com­pany.

“The reopening of the fa­cil­ity is highly trou­bling and ir­re­spon­si­ble,” said the com­plaint. “This is a reg­u­la­tor rush­ing to ap­prove reopening without com­plet­ing nec­es­sary in­ves­ti­ga­tions and risk­ing public health.”

L.A. County Su­per­vi­sor Kathryn Barger was in full agree­ment, say­ing some of the res­i­dents have con­tin­ued to com­plain about headaches, nau­sea, bloody noses and other ail­ments.

“We need to know what the root cause is,” Barger told me. “I just don’t know what the rush was.”

Maybe the an­swer is as sim­ple as this:

Time is money.

Gary Coron­ado Los An­ge­les Times

PORTER RANCH res­i­dent Pa­tri­cia Lar­cara makes her­self heard at a public meet­ing in Fe­bru­ary to get in­put on let­ting South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Gas Co. re­sume in­ject­ing gas into the Aliso Canyon stor­age site.

Christina House For The Times

THE STATE has with­held de­tails about lead con­tam­i­na­tion from the Ex­ide re­cy­cling plant, pic­tured in 2013. Cleanup plans are drag­ging on.

Mar­cus Yam Los An­ge­les Times

“THE GOV­ER­NOR has ac­cepted mil­lions of dol­lars from en­ergy com­pa­nies that helped … him and leg­is­la­tors get elected,” says Con­sumer Watch­dog’s Liza Tucker.

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