What a Gas Leak Taught Me About Justice

By Dominique Fu

Environmental Disaster and Justice

This past Fall a massive natural gas storage facility in my community started leaking gas. A lot of gas. And it didn’t stop. The experience taught me a lot about environmental disaster and justice.

In the beginning residents complained about the rotten egg smell caused by mercaptan, a chemical that is added to gas to alert people that, well, gas is leaking. The smell got worse and residents started to complain of headaches, nausea, breathing problems and nose bleeds. The gas company assured everyone that these symptoms were merely side effects of the bad smell.

People started to move,
the well continued to leak.

A local school was shut down and all the children were relocated,
the well continued to leak.

Thousands of people moved. Hotels and pet boarding facilities within 25 miles were completely packed,
the well continued to leak.

Finally three months into the leak and after welcoming foster children into our home we were relocated.
We packed our bags, locked our doors and lived in a hotel 50 miles away for two months.
And the well continued to leak.

Then one day, after five months of leaking, the well stopped leaking.
But the damage remained.

Parks were shut down. There were reports of plants dying. Families went home to find “black oily spots” on their homes and vehicles. Previously healthy kids now had asthma. Noses were still bleeding.

We reluctantly moved back home.

Tonight I sit in my home on the eve of Earth Day and recognizing this is the first year I’ve actually cared about Earth Day. I’m not a journalist or a scientist so it’s hard for me to discuss this experience concisely with all the facts in a row. But I did learn some things about justice during and it feels important right now to share it.

crop person preparing lunch in house kitchen
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Propaganda Works

It still amazes how cleverly the gas company handled the initial complaints. They made it ALL about the smell. They said things like “people who are sensitive” to describe people having symptoms, as if those people were weak, it was their fault for getting sick. They assured everyone that it was the mercaptan, the smelly rotten egg substance that was causing problems.

But when is the last time you heard of someone smelling something so bad that their nose bled? Mercaptan is added to gas as a warning…it is merely alerting you that there is a big big problem. But the gas company made it all about ‘the sensitive people that can’t handle bad smells’ rather than ‘the tons of toxic chemicals being dumped into your community’. And shockingly it worked.

Truth seekers are easily dismissed

There were several thousand people who weren’t fooled by the mercaptan propaganda. They up and moved their families. And for most people, that was the end of that.

But there was another group of people who moved. People who dared to ask questions like “WHY are our noses bleeding?”

“What chemicals were released into the air?” “Why is the house I haven’t lived in for two months getting enormous gas bills?” These questions weren’t being answered. So they got louder. They wrote their local representatives, they made signs and stood on corners, they protested and started Facebook groups.

They were heard…And almost instantaneously they were dismissed.  “Conspiracy theorists”. “Opportunists”. It kind of got ugly fast.

Even we were made fun of by some people about our ‘vacation’. Now that we are home I can laugh about it, however at the time it wasn’t funny to me at all. I was scared, confused and completely overwhelmed trying to do what I thought was the best thing for my family and the children entrusted into our care and no one was giving us any information.

industrial machine during golden hour - Environmental Disaster and Justice
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If you can’t see it, It’s easier to believe that it doesn’t exist

And isn’t that the problem with so many issues related to injustice? If we saw with our own eyes, resumes getting ripped up because someones first name was “telling” of their gender or ethnicity, it would be easy to believe that Equal Opportunity still isn’t equal.

If gas had a color and it turned the sky black, HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of people would have fled and never come back. But you can’t see gas just like you can’t see injustice. Sure, you can see the effects but we can  always conveniently blame that on something else can’t we? And it’s easier to believe that it doesn’t exist. The people who didn’t move weren’t uninformed, they just had the luxury of choosing to not acknowledge what was happening because they didn’t feel sick.

The system is broken, but sometimes it works

It took many months and hundreds of phone calls for local officials to get angry. However once they did, it actually became quite helpful.  The Department of Health was SUPER shady and downplayed everything but local officials, city councilmen, chambers of commerce, neighborhood councils really started to defend the community.

They made demands of the gas company that we as citizens were powerless to do on our own. For the first time the voices of the people were being represented. Our political and justice systems are really messed up, but when we can rally together and use the system, sometimes it can actually work well.

woman in blue jacket holding white and black i am happy to be happy print paper - Environmental Disaster and Justice
Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

Exposed corruption exposes corruption

Once the gas company finally got called out on the leak and was forced to admit that it was 100% their negligence that led to the disaster (there was no emergency shut of in place…not joking), it lead to more and more corruption from the gas company being exposed.

There are literally hundreds of other leaks, rate hikes intended to ‘do maintenance’ that was clearly never done, enormous gas bills due to faulty billing technology and the list goes on.

The internet can be a crazy place and a breeding ground for confusion and hysteria but in this situation I think it helped rally neighbors together to fight for their community and call out the utility company and corrupt officials publicly.

Justice is the work of long suffering

The hype is dying down, people are returning back to their lives and the legal process is slow. Last week I read that the CEO of SoCal Gas just got a three million dollar bonus…and yet we haven’t been reimbursed for expense incurred.

But I’m tired. Almost too tired to fight (although my credit cards will not allow me to be done just get) but definitely too tired to fight long term. The utility company is a monopoly. They can get away with this chaos simply because we don’t have another choice. If we want gas we need them, plain and simple. So fighting them feels exhausting and futile and long.

This disaster is far from over. If you read this blog I would ask for your solidarity by keeping up with this and other disasters happening in our country. There are so many. Remind yourself that just because you aren’t hearing about it doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Environmental disasters eventually affect all of us, we need to learn from it and support one another through it.

If you are interested in learning more about the Aliso Canyon gas leak here are some things worth reading:

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Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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  1. What an incredible story. Propaganda works so well… on so many of us.I don't want to sound flippant about something serious that hurt so many people, but I did notice that the company was gaslighting people about gas. Does that count as irony?

  2. Thank you

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