Unnatural Disasters & Environmental Health

UCLA COEH Symposium: Unnatural Disasters and Environmental Health
Causes, Consequences and Prevention in the Case of Porter Ranch

The UCLA Center for Occupational and Environmental Health’s (COEH) Fall Symposium brought together 86 academics, government leaders, professional scientists, non-profits, monitoring agencies, and community groups to study the scientific, regulatory, and social issues surrounding the Aliso Canyon methane leak of 2016 near Porter Ranch.

The symposium underscored how COEH in Northern and Southern California are working jointly with government agencies and the community to step-up the state’s ability to mount a rapid response to unforeseen disasters with the shared goal to protect public health and the environment.

Featured speakers included COEH Director and California Air Resources Board Member John Balmes; Michael Jerrett, director of UCLA COEH; and Linda Delp, director of the UCLA Labor Occupational Safety & Health program.

Seth Shonkoff, PhD ‘12, executive director of PSE Healthy Energy and visiting scholar in the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley, and Diane Garcia-Gonzales, PhD candidate, UC Berkeley Environmental Health Sciences, started the day’s presentations with an overview of the Porter Ranch disaster.

Presenter Katherine Butler, an environmental epidemiologist with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, explained what it was like at her agency to receive hundreds of phone calls per day from community members sickened by the natural gas blowout, according to symposium organizer Christina Batteate, Outreach Coordinator for UCLA COEH.

Hamid Arabzadeh, from Environmental Consultants, Inc., summarized the potential occupational health impacts that occurred during clean-up activities, sharing stories of gig economy workers with inadequate equipment and training cleaning the interiors of homes in the impact zone.

Alexandra Nagy from Food & Water Watch described her efforts as a community advocate, while Matt Pakucko from Save Porter Ranch, Sharon McNary from KPCC Southern California Public Radio Susan Abram, Los Angeles Daily News emphasized the importance of perspectives from the community and the role of the news media in garnering attention and ultimately resources.

Held at UCLA’s Neuroscience Research Building on November 4, 2016, the diverse audience of local regulators, scientific experts, UCLA students, and community members ensured an engaging public dialogue during morning and afternoon Q&A sessions.

“A big lesson learned from Porter Ranch was that there wasn’t a coordinated, rapid response in place,” noted organizer Batteate.So, what are the institutional steps necessary to make sure that health departments can respond as quickly as they need to protect people? Because of COEH’s quick willingness to put boots on the ground, it helped the County be more flexible and protective of the public in the chaos of that lack of a plan initially.”

“The event taught at least two lessons,” said Jerrett “First, we need ongoing monitoring around natural gas storage facilities for methane and air toxics. Second, the facilities are regular emitters of air toxics such as benzene and formaldehyde. So, beyond the uncontrolled leaks, these routine emissions could also be affecting the health of nearby residents. There is a critical need to conduct routine, ongoing health surveillance of neighboring residents to ensure they are not adversely affected by emissions from these facilities.”

Of note, UCLA COEH and the California Air Resources (CARB) are now collaborating on exposure monitoring and data collection at four new sites in the region. This baseline data will serve as a benchmark during any future air quality events to inform decision-making and disaster response.