Buy Photo

Felix Adamo / The Californian

Private security watches over the eight homes on Nelson Court in Arvin where a gas leak forced the evacuation of its residents. Mahin Drive (in the foreground) was closed from Varsity Avenue to Nelson Court in this photo taken March 25, 2014.

Kern County has been producing oil since the late 1800s. Among the miles of pipelines carrying oil and gas are many that are several decades old. But despite the pipeline network's advanced age, thousands of feet of pipe have never been checked for leaks.

One of these -- a 40-year-old, 3-inch-wide, half-mile-long flare waste gas pipeline in a neighborhood a few blocks from Arvin High School -- was discovered in March to have been leaking for possibly as long as two years. A mix of 20 chemicals including methane, benzene, n-hexane and heptane was found, along with toxic gas levels 13 times higher than levels deemed safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, causing the mandatory evacuation of more than three dozen people.

More than five weeks later, evacuees are concerned about potential health problems for them and their children, who played in the yards along Nelson Court and ate from the avocado, pomegranate and other trees -- until the trees died. The families have been unable to return home, and no one can say when -- or if -- they will.

What is known is that:

* Smaller pipelines like the one that leaked aren't required to be checked regularly by either their owners or state and federal agencies.

* There are thousands of feet of similar aging pipelines crisscrossing Kern County, and, according to a former state official, no one knows where many are located.

* The state has no record that the owner of the pipeline in question, Petro Capital Resources LLC, ever checked the pipeline for leaks and the company wasn't even aware of the direction it ran.

* After a month of remediation efforts in and around the Nelson Court homes, officials have refused to disclose the results of various air, soil and environmental tests.

* California is not the only oil-producing state without testing regulations for smaller pipelines.

No regulations

There is no regulation mandating the testing of lines such as the one in question that leaked beneath Varsity Avenue in Arvin, because it's less than 4 inches in diameter. The plastic pipeline is north of Nelson Court.

The pipeline does meet the California Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, or DOGGR's, definition of "environmentally sensitive" because it is within 300 feet of a residence. The Arvin line is 225 feet from the closest home.

But testing is mandated only on environmentally sensitive small lines called gathering lines, usually 2 to 4 inches in diameter and carrying liquid hydrocarbons.

The flare waste gas pipeline also is not covered under federal regulations by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration because it is neither a transportation line nor a production line.

The Arvin line is a low-pressure pipeline that carried gas associated with oil production from one oil field to another where it could be flared off.

According to DOGGR officials, mandating regular testing on every pipeline would be "impractical," especially in Kern County.

"We'd need an army of inspectors working around the clock. Because of that, the regulations distinguish between the risks associated with pipelines of varying size and proximity to other land uses," DOGGR spokesman Don Drysdale said.

"As it is, the division does have engineers in the field on a 24/7 schedule to witness well operations and conduct facility inspections."

Oil and gas operators are required to submit a spill contingency plan to DOGGR for every oil and gas lease that is operated, with a map of production facilities and pipelines.

"(The lines) become more susceptible to leaks with age," said Randy Adams, a retired head of Bakersfield's DOGGR division. "They are usually made of metal so they see corrosion.

"I'd say the minority (of pipelines) are under 4 inches. The conundrum is that over 150 years, so many pipelines have been laid that they honestly have no idea where all the pipelines are. Without digging them all up, we wouldn't know."

When Petro Chemical Resources bought the lease for the Arvin gas line in 2012, no map was provided. The company was told the line ran south, according to DOGGR officials, who estimate the pipeline dates from the early 1970s. Once the leak occurred, PCR learned the line actually ran north.

PCR operates 35 oil wells in four Kern County fields. Production Manager Jeff Williams said the diameter of all the company's pipelines is 3 inches or smaller. The Varsity Avenue pipeline, Williams said, is PCR's only one in a residential area.

The lack of regulations on small lines is not uncommon in oil-producing states.

North Dakota does not mandate testing on these types of lines, said Alison Ritter, spokeswoman for the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources' Oil and Gas Division.

Alaska also does not mandate testing on similar lines, said Betty Schorr, program manager for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

Adams said one reason the pipeline program requiring testing on lines larger than 4 inches in diameter was started about four years ago was that officials didn't know where many were.

"The program has turned up a lot of pipeline that even operators didn't know about," Adams said.

DOGGR officials have said they don't know how many pipelines less than 4 inches in diameter are in Arvin or Kern County. There are 73 oil fields in the county, many with multiple operations and leases. Each has hundreds or thousands of feet of pipelines of various sizes.

"But the plans are not required to state how many feet (or) miles of pipelines a lease has, and the division does not measure and calculate that distance from the maps submitted," DOGGR's Drysdale said.

State Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, who represents Arvin, said he plans to look into the lack of regulations.

"Public safety always needs to be our top priority," Vidak said. "At a minimum, I would encourage all companies that have these pipelines to regularly test and maintain them."

The leak

On March 11, Southern California Gas Co. was performing routine checks for leaks on the Arvin natural gas line it has owned since 1994 when the instruments detected PCR's leak. Workers realized March 12 the leak wasn't from their pipeline and notified the city of Arvin. It took five days to determine the line's location and the extent of the leak, said Brett Grassi, a Kern County Fire Department spokesman.

Not until March 17 did officials learn the gas had saturated the soil and made its way into eight Nelson Court homes. Mandatory evacuations were ordered the next day.

Some residents said they had smelled the gas for as long as two years, and complained of nosebleeds, headaches, coughing and dizziness.

On March 18, the concentration in an air sample taken in one home was 53 percent gas. The 53 percent indicated a relative concentration of explosive gases in the air. It means 53 percent of the sample taken detected explosive gas, making the room explosive and toxic, said Vicky Furnish, a program supervisor and hazardous materials expert with Kern County Environmental Health Services Department. Another home had a 51 percent reading.

Families had lemon, peach, lime, avocado, orange and pomegranate trees in their yards that stopped producing fruit. Grass died and gardens stopped flourishing. Residents blame the leak, not the area's three-year drought.

The cause of the leak remains unknown. The pipeline was flooded with water and shut down.

Kern County Public Health Director Matt Constantine has repeatedly refused to release the results of air tests conducted by the county, saying the leak remains under investigation. Advanced GeoEnvironmental Inc. has refused to release results of air and soil toxicity tests it is conducting for PCR.

What's being done

Advanced GeoEnvironmental and Kern County Environmental Health Services continue monitoring affected homes for flammable vapors.

Remediation crews installed wells in each backyard with pipes to carry the gas to a primary vapor-extraction system. The system dissipates it safely into the air.

Advanced GeoEnvironmental will continue testing soil to ensure gas is not present when residents return home.

Nonprofit organizations are helping displaced residents voice their concerns.

Cesar Campos, of the Kern Environmental Enforcement Network, said his agency has filed a public records request for the results of an air-sampling test by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, but has not received a response. The network wants to organize a town hall meeting withthe air district, the county's environmental health department and DOGGR but has been unsuccessful.

The network partners with community members to assist local, regional, state and federal agencies in the detection of environmental problems. It has asked first responders, local governments, nonprofits and residents to expand existing emergency response protocols for similar incidents.

Campos said both residents and the network are frustrated none of the agencies has taken responsibility.

"The problem we have is no one regulates (the pipelines). It sounds like the city doesn't even know where they are," Campos said. "That's why we are so angry. We have pipes running through a city ... and everyone keeps saying they don't regulate them."

Arvin City Councilman Jose Gurrola lives on Nelson Court. Even neighbors not evacuated are concerned, he said, and want to know what was in the leaking gas line.

"As a city official, I represent the public's health and the community," Gurrola said. "It's very disturbing that there isn't much regulation."

At Arvin's April 1 City Council meeting, Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez, Kern County Fire Chief Brian Marshall and Constantine, the director of public health, discussed the leak and how they planned to fix it.

But Gurrola said the trio didn't answer the council's questions about how long residents would be displaced and when air sample results would be released. They left before the council finished its agenda items. After the meeting, council members were unable to answer residents' questions.

That's why Gurrola wants the May 6 Arvin council meeting to include Perez, Marshall and Constantine again.