It's been nearly two years since eight families living on Nelson Court in Arvin suddenly received a knock on their door from Kern County health officials accompanied by firefighters and were told they had to evacuate their homes because of a gas leak. Kern County Environmental Health found dangerous levels of explosive gases in and around the houses.
It would take eight months and personal intervention by Gov. Jerry Brown before the families could finally move back home after the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, known as DOGGR, deemed the homes safe to reoccupy.
The incident reinforced what some residents had long suspected. Something was making them sick. Before the evacuation, residents complained of symptoms such as dizziness, vomiting, nausea, headaches and nose bleeds. A pregnant woman feared for the safety of her unborn child.
Earlier this month, we finally got some insight into the situation from DOGGR. It found numerous violations by the pipeline's owner, Petro Capital Resources of Bakersfield. The state said Petro Capital failed to test, operate and/or maintain oilfield production facilities in accordance with good oil field practices, thus allowing the gas leak into the subsurface beneath private residences and public roads.
The leaking pipeline was about 40 years old, yet PCR had not tested nor performed any maintenance on it, nor did PCR have any repair or maintenance records on the pipeline by the prior owners.
“The residents were displaced from their homes for an eight- to nine-month period, causing significant disruption to their normal life,” as well as causing damage to private and public property, according to an order released by DOGGR.
Left unanswered: neither DOOGR nor PCR knows how long the pipeline had been leaking, but it was a lot to contaminate the families homes. DOGGR issued a $75,000 penalty against PCR, which the company can appeal.
Adding to the families’ woes is their attempt to get compensated for not just having to be ousted from their homes, but for property damage and ongoing medical costs.
“The same thing keeps happening to my three children as before,” said Elvia Garcia, who was among the evacuated families. “They still get bleeding and headaches.”
Garcia fears the situation has gotten worse. Garcia claims her family doctor told her that it's too early to say, but that it will take three years before it's known if the kids develop cancer as a result of being exposed to the toxic chemicals. Her pregnant daughter refused to move back into the house and now lives in Bakersfield. Others told a similar story.
And there's another twist to the story.
In September, Kiesel Law firm of Beverly Hills filed legal complaints on behalf of Arvin residents against the County of Kern and City of Arvin seeking more than $10 million in damages alleging personal injury, property damage, wrongful death and emotional distress.
The claim accused the county and city of failing to properly regulate PCR's pipeline and remediation. Both entities rejected the claim, setting the stage for a lawsuit.
Then in November, residents received a letter from Kiesel attorney Steven Archer stating that the case was too big and complicated and required a larger legal team. The letter states residents would be better represented by R. Rex Parris Law Firm based in Lancaster and residents should contact R. Rex Parris. But R.Rex Parris rejected the case.
Reached by phone, Archer said he could not discuss the contents of the letter but said he had made arrangements to give all information over to that firm.
“They had agreed to take the case, then they changed their mind,“ said Archer. Asked why R.Rex Parris turned down the case, Parris spokesman Dante Hickles said, ”Because Kiesel’s work is great and we know they can handle the case.“
The case is back in the hands of Kiesel Law Firm.
In the meantime, the statute of limitations in which to file a lawsuit has expired. No lawsuit was ever filed against Kern or Arvin. Residents say they were told by their attorney that upon further investigation, neither the county nor city had anything to do with causing the gas leak.
But Kiesel Law firm is expected to file a lawsuit against pipeline owner PCR before March 18.
PCR did not return several calls seeking comment.
Residents understandably are frustrated by the process. While PCR did provide housing and a stipend for the families while they were forced out of their homes, no one has compensated them for property damage in and around their homes.
But what they worry about most is any long-term illness that might strike them in the future as a result of being exposed to toxic chemicals for an unknown period of time.
“I want to set up a fund for my kids,” said Andy Lara. “What if they should get sick in the future?”
Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a reporter for KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.