In early 2016, COEH PhD student Diane Gonzales received national attention as part of a rapid response team of volunteer students collecting air monitoring samples in Porter Ranch following the catastrophic leak at the Aliso Canyon natural gas facility, an event that resulted in the largest release of methane—100,000 tons—in the history of the United States.
First reported by Southern California Gas on October 23, 2015, the leak lasted 110 days, uprooted thousands within a five mile radius into temporary housing, and left community members grappling with questions about the potential health effects of the invisible gas emissions flooding their neighborhood unabated.
Diane had gained experience deploying pollution monitors and collecting sampling data over the summer of 2014 in Weld County, Colorado. The aim of her PhD research is to investigate the potential impact of exposures from oil and natural gas development and storage with the goal of guiding policies to protect communities at risk of emission events.
“Originally, when I had done this work in Colorado, it was a rural community where I placed monitors in open fields during routine emission events,” said Gonzales. “People were somewhat curious of what I did, but really no one followed up with me to know the results.”
Porter Ranch was different. She and the team had to put together a sampling plan on short notice in response to a disaster. “It was not just, ‘Let's test the air that people experience every day.’ Instead, it was ‘Let's test the air around a disaster which is affecting people's lives in a dramatic way, where they have to relocate and change around their entire lives. It was really difficult to do something quick, responsive, and in a way that we thought was best for the community, then to relay those results in a way that was beneficial to them so they could make decisions based on our professional interpretation of the results.”
Although studies have reported an increased risk between the distance of oil and natural gas operations and adverse health outcomes, most use arbitrary distances based on statistical models rather than empirical observation, notes Gonzales. As part of her PhD, she aims to develop a model environmental health tracking system for communities proximate to facilities that will systematically collect, monitor, and analyze baseline data in the case of future accidental or fugitive leaks.
To collect health data in the Porter Ranch community, Gonzales is developing a questionnaire based on the California Health Interview Survey. Administered on-line for 6 months through the LA Department of Public Health (LADPH), the survey will collect demographic data, general health information, and experiences during and directly after the Aliso Canyon disaster including relocation history, remediation efforts, access to available resources along with perceptions of disruption, support, and impact on family.
Gonzales says of the collaboration, “I cannot overstate just how much I've learned from my experience working with the LADPH, and to be working with such an enthusiastic, like-minded group whose goals very much mirror my own.”
Previous to her PhD studies, Gonzales worked as a researcher in a pharmaceutical lab analyzing tissue samples at a wet bench. “I really felt displaced from the people that my work was affecting,” reflected Gonzales. “Having an experience like Porter Ranch where you get to interact with the population you work in—that was really important to me—it meant a lot in terms of the reasons why I switched careers.”
Gonzales says of her Porter Ranch experience, “Never underestimate the types of research that we do, which is extremely helpful for individuals and communities and could possibly influence the way we interact with our environment. I think that's the biggest takeaway for me. Although we might look at air quality as data, it also affects people's lives and their families in a dramatic way.”
Photo Credits: Aliso Canyon Gas Leak by Scott L. courtesy of Wikipedia, Aliso Canyon Methane Leak courtesy of Earthworks/Flickr, and Aliso Canyon research photos courtesy of Diane Gonzalez.
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