Nestled in between Marina del Rey and El Segundo is Playa del Rey. Home of the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve and the beach, this community provides a contrast to the Los Angeles concrete jungle. But the region’s Playa del Rey Natural Gas Storage Facility has recently come under scrutiny by local organizations and community members.
The gas storage facility was first established in 1942, and is currently owned and managed by the SoCalGas Co. The company’s website states that roughly 90 percent of homes in Southern California are gas dependent. It also states that these storage facilities mitigate sudden spikes in natural gas demand and provide service during shortages, granting “safe and reliable natural gas” for members of the community.
However, some residents of the surrounding neighborhoods have concerns about potential dangers. A community of these concerned residents and environmental activists collectively form the Protect Playa Now (PPN) group that advocates for creating a safer environment and educating people about the nearby gas storage facility. Robert Vaghini, a leader of PPN, said the group was created in the wake of the Aliso Canyon Porter Ranch blowout that occurred in October of 2015.
“The natural gas storage facility there had the biggest blowout in U.S. history, spewing methane, formaldehyde, and other toxic chemicals, it was getting the community around it very sick,” Vaghini said. “Tens of thousands of people had to leave their homes for months.”
This incident led residents to question how safe these local facilities really were, as there are several in the greater Los Angeles area.
“If this facility were to have a similar event, like the Aliso Canyon disaster, there’s upwards of half a million people that live within five miles of this facility,” Vaghini said.
In addition to half a million residents, there are over 60 schools and universities within that five mile radius, as well as the fourth busiest airport in the world in less than three miles away. “Tens of thousands of evacuees from Aliso Canyon can easily lead to hundreds of thousands of evacuees around the Playa del Rey facility,” he said.
Vaghini also expressed concern about the natural gas the facility intermittently vents when pressure builds during maintenance. SoCalGas is required to list what toxins have been released into the atmosphere whenever such an event occurs. Some of these toxins are formaldehyde, benzene, hydrogen sulfide, and n-hexane.
The natural gas emitted is colorless and odorless so the company adds an odorant to help detect leaks in their facility. Methyl Mercaptan is the chemical added to the gases released when pressure increases; however, this chemical is flammable and is considered an irritant for human skin, eyes, and airways.
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, mercaptan is heavier than air and can spread through the ground. The most common method of exposure to this toxin is through inhalation, and is “rapidly absorbed in the lungs,” which may lead to side effects such as “headaches, dizziness, tremors, seizures, nausea and vomiting, and lack of coordination,” according to the government website.
SoCalGas declined to be interviewed for this story.
The company’s website also has a list of chemicals that are vented out of the facility monthly, measured in parts per million (ppm). The latest data shows 94.46 ppm of methane, 0.42 ppm of nitrogen gas, and 0.94 ppm of carbon dioxide were released in January 2018. All months prior show similar trends.
To determine when health issues spike, a victim of the Aliso Canyon disaster, Andrew Krowne, has created the “Environmental Health Tracker” (EHT) app for the local neighborhood residents to easily report on symptoms they may be experiencing, as well as report on air quality.
The Protect Playa Now group works alongside professionals to establish more data than the given excel sheets provided by SoCalGas. One of their newest projects is a GoFundMe page to raise money to create low cost gas monitors for the communities of Playa del Rey, Westchester, Marina del Rey, Venice, Playa Vista, and El Segundo. Their goal is to distribute at least 200 gas monitors.
“We’ll have all these readings from all around the neighborhoods, and if we also have spikes in health issues, then we can correlate those spikes with an increase of methane or any other toxin that is coming from the facility,” Vaghini said. “We are very reliant on SoCalGas’ data reporting at this time.”