Residents Return Home After Being Evacuated for 8 Months

–Arvin, CA

After 8 months of living outside of their houses, residents of Nelson Ct. in Arvin, CA were able to return home this weekend.  In March, 2014, elevated levels of waste gas forced an evacuation of 8 families in a neighborhood surrounded by oil production processing tanks and flares.  At the time of the evacuation, a poorly mapped and largely unregulated pipeline owned by Petro Capital Resources was determined to have a leak—it is unclear how long the pipeline leaked before it’s problematic discovery, although some residents claim to have suffered from gas for years prior.

After the evacuation, a jurisdictional frenzy from regulatory agencies including Kern County and the Division of Oil, Gas, & Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) left residents and community members utterly confused about governments’ involvement with protecting and enforcing health protective regulations.  Both the county and DOGGR claimed that these pipelines were out of their jurisdiction and granted the company PCR, full responsibility for remediating this situation.

This allowed the company to contract with private environmental organizations to conduct testing and do soil vapor extraction at the location.  In several public meetings after the evacuation, Kern County officials were clear to state that all data gathered was under the jurisdiction of the company and only shared with the county after curation and interpretation.  Meanwhile, those statements were met with utter inaction from state level agencies.

After several months of unresponsiveness and inadequacy at the local level, CCEJN, CRPE, Global Community Monitor, and Committee for a Better Arvin, hand-delivered a letter to the Governor’s office in September asking for more involvement from DOGGR, and Cal-EPA to remediate this problem.  The letter addressed to the Governor, asked about regulations that under our interpretation gave DOGGR the regulatory authority over this pipeline, and asked that the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) review independently collected samples of indoor air contamination prior to lifting the evacuation order.

DOGGR and OEHHA responded to the requests and admitted in a formal letter that the division was responsible for regulating “oil and gas production and the attendant facilities on oil field leases.”  At the same time, OEHHA agreed to review samples collected independently by an agency hired by the County rather than the company.  Those samples were reviewed and then presented to the residents late last week, as they were informed that they could return to their homes.

Although we are happy that independent testing and reviewing by public agencies is the data that was ultimately used to put the residents back in their homes, we are also extremely critical of poor practices by the county and DOGGR throughout this situation.  One of the most insulting practices to highlight is that even before the independent data was formally presented to the residents, they were already under an ultimatum by the company to move out of the temporary housing the residents were provided.  The residents were being forced to be out of their temporary homes by Sunday, 12/7/2014, and only received the results of the independent data on Friday, 12/5/2014 at 6:00pm.  This effectively gave the residents, a little over 1 day to clean the evacuated homes, and move their belongings over 30 miles from East Bakersfield.

Furthermore, in several meetings throughout this process there were explicit language access violations that effectively prevented all residents from participating fully within the process.  In many occasions these problems with language access held Spanish-speaking residents outside of conversations.  Language access and full participation is a central theme to environmental justice and in this case many meetings lacked respect for the contributions of Spanish-speaking residents.  Another thing is that residents could not formally figure out what agency was responsible for sending them home.  Through these last two meetings many of them expressed interest in receiving a signed letter from the agency responsible for sending them back home certifying that they were in fact safe to move back home.  Again, a frenzy like scramble, from regulatory agencies prevented them from getting this document even after many requests.

In the coming months CCEJN, CRPE, GCM, CBA will continue to engage the county and DOGGR about this incident.  Although the residents are back in their homes, this incident is far from over.  This incident has illustrated various jurisdiction gaps and serious problems with the regulatory processes of both agencies.  Our organizations will make good faith efforts to help close those gaps in a manner that is feasible, appropriate, and provides more protection for resident communities across the state.  We hope that these regulatory agencies will also meet us with the same level of good faith and that we can build from this—with the hope that this incident does not happen anywhere else in the state.