Aerial view of the real estate development near the Aliso Canyon SoCalGas storage facility. Photo: Ewen Telford / The New York Times

By Nathaniel Rich
31 March 2016

(The New York Times Magazine) – "It just seems like a beautiful day in Southern California," Bryan Caforio said.

It was late January in Porter Ranch, an affluent neighborhood on the northern fringe of Los Angeles. Caforio and I sat at a Starbucks overlooking an oceanic parking lot crowded with shoppers. The air was still, dry, 70 degrees. Caforio, a young trial lawyer running for Congress in the state’s 25th District, gestured at the pink and orange striations of sky above Aliso Canyon, its foothills bronze in the falling daylight. “It seems like a beautiful sunset in a wonderful community,” Caforio said, “and we’re sitting outside, enjoying a wonderful coffee.”

But there were scattered clues that suggested that everything was not so wonderful. Near a trio of news vans parked in front of the Starbucks, antenna masts projecting from their roofs, a cameraman stared quizzically up at the canyon. Next to the SuperCuts, security guards stood outside two nondescript storefronts; stenciled on the windows were the words “Community Resource Center” and, in smaller letters, “SoCalGas.” The guards asked for identification and dismissed anyone who tried to take a photograph. At the entrance to Bath & Body Works, a device that resembled an electronic parking meter was balanced on a tripod; the digital display read “BENZENE,” followed by a series of indecipherable ideograms. The parking lot held a preponderance of silver Honda Civics bearing the decal of the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Inside the cars, men sat in silence, waiting.

Beyond the Ralphs grocery store and the Walmart rose a neighborhood of jumbo beige homes with orange clay-­tiled roofs and three-car garages. The lawns were tidily landscaped with hedges of lavender, succulents, cactuses and kumquat trees. The neighborhood was a model of early-­1980s California suburban design; until October, it was best known for being the location where Steven Spielberg shot E.T. But now the meandering streets were desolate, apart from the occasional unmarked white van. As you ascended the canyon, reaching gated communities with names like Renaissance, Promenade and Highlands, the police presence increased. On Sesnon Boulevard, the neighborhood’s northern boundary, an electric billboard propped in the middle lane blinked messages: “REPORT CRIME ACTIVITY; L.A.P.D. IN THE AREA; CALL 911.” Holleigh Bernson Memorial Park was empty aside from three cop cars, patrol lights flashing.

But the most significant clues were the spindly metal structures spaced along the ridge of the canyon. They resembled antennas or construction sites or alien glyphs. Until recently, most residents of Porter Ranch did not pay them much attention.

“You look at the hills, you see a few towers,” Caforio said. “But do you really know what they are?” He shook his head. “You try to say, ‘Hey, we’re having an environmental disaster right now!’ But it just looks like a beautiful sunset.”

The first sign of trouble came on Oct. 25, when the Southern California Gas Company filed a terse report with the California Public Utilities Commission noting that a leak had been detected on Oct. 23 at a well in its Aliso Canyon storage facility. Under “Summary,” the report read: “No ignition, no injury. No media.”

The local news media began to take notice, however, when Porter Ranch residents complained of suffocating gas fumes. In response, SoCalGas released a statement on Oct. 28 pointing out that the well was “outdoors at an isolated area of our mountain facility over a mile away from and more than 1,200 feet higher than homes or public areas.” It assured the public that the leak did not present a threat. […]

“We’re all kind of feeding on it in a weird way,” said Henry Stern, a Democrat who is running for State Senate in the local district. He previously served as senior counsel on energy and environmental policy for the district’s current senator, Fran Pavley, a Democrat who cannot run again because of term limits. “How often are there climate disasters in suburbia?”

Stern has been struck at community meetings by the comments of local residents, many of them self-­identifying conservatives, who have begun to question the wisdom of relying on fossil fuels. “Climate change is not a real thing for most of these people,” Stern said. “But you change your mind quick when your kids are puking.” [more]

The Invisible Catastrophe



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