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Californian contributing columnist Jose Gaspar.

Henry A. Barrios/ The Californian

You know that feeling you get when you've been away from home for a while either because you're on vacation, a work-related assignment or something else? You get tired and feel out of sorts sleeping somewhere other than your own bed. And if you have kids or elderly family members with you, the anxiety level increases while you're away, as they, too, may get tired, bored or even depressed.

So I can only imagine what it was like for eight families in Arvin who were forced out of their homes for more than eight months through no fault of their own. Last weekend, they finally got to go back home.

"Everything is good," said 52-year-old Jose Zavala, who has lived at his house on Nelson Court for 20 years.

The yellow tape with the word "Caution" that was once wrapped in front of their homes is finally gone. Families were getting used to being and sleeping in their own homes.

"So far, so good. I do feel more comfortable," said neighbor Pauline Benavidez.

Here's what led up to this: On March 11, a crew from Southern California Gas Co. was performing routine checks for leaks on its own lines in the Arvin area. The crew detected a gas leak coming from another line belonging to Petro Capital Resources (PCR) of Bakersfield.

The source of the leak was found to be near Varsity Road and Mohin Drive, close to the eight homes impacted by the leak. According to Kern County Fire Department spokesman Brett Grassi, it took five days to determine the line's location. But it wasn't until March 17 that county officials discovered the gas had saturated the soil, making its way into the homes nearby.

Kern County Environmental Health Services investigated and found dangerous levels of explosive gases in the soil around the exterior of the homes and detected explosive levels of gas within two of the eight homes. That prompted the evacuation order on March 18, which affected about three dozen people.

Residents complained of feeling sick with symptoms such as dizziness, vomiting, nausea, headaches and nose bleeds, and some said they had smelled the gas for as long as two years. There was at least one pregnant woman who feared for the safety of her unborn child.

"There was leaking of hydrocarbons into the soil and into the houses," said Steven Bohlen, state oil and gas supervisor for the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, known as DOGGR.

According to Bohlen, PCR was ordered to remedy the situation, and the company did so by installing a soil vapor extraction system on the homes in question. PCR conducted tests and notified the county in August that it believed the homes were safe to be reoccupied.

Not so fast, said residents impacted by the leak. They didn't exactly trust PCR and demanded the county and state do further independent testing, which the county agreed to do.

All of this took a lot of time, which began taking a toll on everyone involved. PCR was not legally obligated to provide alternate housing for the families, but smartly did so, as well as pay them a stipend for food. But the families were provided housing in Bakersfield, which caused a new set of problems for Elvia Garcia, who has seven children.

"(Being evacuated) caused so much trouble for them and myself," said Garcia. "Getting the kids to school in Arvin and then going back to pick them up was not easy."

Jose Zavala was worried about restoring his fruit trees. Not only had the trees not been watered during his absence, he had noticed trees and plants on his property had died before the gas leak was detected.

So how long had the leak been happening before it was detected? And had it not been for Southern California Gas Co. doing routine testing, how long would these families been exposed to toxic chemicals?

According to Bohlen, the best guess is the leak could have been happening for about seven months before being detected. Gas company crews did a check in August 2013 and did not detect any leaks until their next check in March of this year.

Which brings up another disturbing aspect to this story. We live in a county with miles upon miles of pipelines carrying oil and gas that traverse every which way. Not to mention many are several decades old. Yet an untold number of these have never been checked for leaks.

The state doesnt mandate the testing of lines, such as the 40-year-old, 3-inch-wide pipeline found to be leaking in Arvin. A story by The Californian published Aug. 26 quotes DOGGR officials as saying it would be impractical to require regular testing on every pipeline in Kern County.

Assemblyman Rudy Salas, state Sen. Andy Vidak: are you guys listening to this?

Bohlen said that after reviewing the data from all air and soil sample studies, he's "absolutely" sure the homes are safe to be reoccupied. But residents wanted officials to give them a written document stating their homes are safe now. Bohlen said that was something out of his scope and couldn't do.

Along this convoluted journey, Arvin residents filed a total of 416 legal claims against the county of Kern and city of Arvin seeking more than $10 million in damages because of the pipeline gas leak. Among other things, residents allege the county and city failed to properly and safely regulate the PCR pipeline.

While residents are glad to be back home, some question the state's assertion that everything is now good. Asked if she believes it is safe to return to her home, resident Yesenia Lara said, "They leave us no choice but to go home whether we like it or not."

Have a Merry Christmas and a (happier) new year.

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