Legislation under consideration in Sacramento aims to address questions of public and private responsibility that arose last year after an Arvin gas pipeline leak forced about three dozen people from their homes for more than eight months.

In its current form, Assembly Bill 1420, authored by Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, would require state regulators to prioritize the testing of any oil-related pipeline running near homes or schools.

It would also force local health officials, in collaboration with the pipeline's owner and state oil regulators, to make sure residents are notified of a leak if it poses "a serious threat to public health and safety."

Salas said he proposed the bill after displaced Arvin residents told him how frustrated they were about not being able to identify who or what agency was supposed to address their safety concerns.

"Obviously this (bill) stems from what happened out in Arvin," he said. "One of the biggest concerns I heard from the residents and the community groups was, one, they didn't know who was responsible, and two, how were we going to go about helping people?"

His bill has won support from people who advocated on behalf of families displaced by last year's pipeline leak. The state's oil industry has declined to take a position on the legislation, as has the states' primary oil regulatory agency and a Kern County supervisor who worked to return the Arvin families to their homes.

EVACUATIONS AND TESTING

Residents of Nelson Court, just off Mahin Drive in Arvin, started complaining of gas smells, headaches and other problems in early 2014, prompting the Kern County Fire Department to begin testing their homes. In March the department determined eight houses contained highly explosive levels of gas, and the residents were evacuated.

The oil company that owns the pipeline, Petro Capital Resources LLC, paid for some of the families to live in Bakersfield apartments during an investigation. PCR also shut down the waste gas pipeline and paid for a human health risk assessment.

Although the company later declined to release results of the assessment, Kern County officials did disclose them. The testing showed high levels of at least two toxic chemicals, benzene and naphthalene.

Soon the residents learned the state's primary oil regulatory agency, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, had never tested the pipeline because it was less than 4 inches in diameter. It turned out no government agency was responsible for testing such equipment.

In December the residents were allowed to move back in after being assured there was no longer any leak-related health risk in their homes.

BILL DETAILS

AB 1420 would give new and, in some cases, overlapping responsibilities to DOGGR, public health officials and pipeline owners.

The bill would require DOGGR to "prioritize the identification and testing of all pipelines that are near sensitive areas and schools." Nothing in the bill exempts pipelines from tests based on their size.

Also, if a local health official determines that a DOGGR-regulated pipeline is leaking such that it poses a public health or safety risk, then the division and the health official must work "collaboratively" with the pipeline's owner or operator to do two things:

* Direct the "responsible party" to test the affected area's soil, air and water for contamination, then disclose the results to the public; and,

* Use the test results to determine whether the leak threatens public health and safety -- and if it does, provide them unspecified assistance. It would be up to public health officials to notify affected residents of the risk.

Additionally, the pipeline operator would have to notify DOGGR and local health officials if it becomes aware of a leak.

Salas said he thinks the bill would alleviate some of the Arvin residents' concerns.

"We just need to have something where we bring clarity and say, 'This is who is responsible,'" he said.

REACTION TO THE BILL

Yesenia Lara, a Nelson Court resident who had been evacuated because of the leak, said knowing that "somebody's going to regulate" pipelines like the one that leaked would give her and her neighbors peace of mind.

"Our damage is already done and hopefully, you know, it won't happen to anybody else again," she said, adding that she and others who were displaced are working with lawyers to find out whether the county, PCR and the City of Arvin were negligent with regard to the leak.

Gustavo Aguirre Jr., who advocated for the residents as a project coordinator with the Central California Environmental Justice Network, called AB 1420 a straightforward, "good faith" effort.

He praised the requirement that test results be publicly disclosed, and said it was a good idea to have public health officials, rather than firefighters, make the health and safety determination. Aguirre also endorsed the idea of giving DOGGR new responsibility for testing pipelines in sensitive areas.

County Supervisor Leticia Perez withheld her support, noting the bill was still subject to amendments.

A better way to handle the situation, she said, might be to wait for a massive environmental review document scheduled for release by the county later this month. The document, intended in part to make oil permitting a strictly ministerial process, is expected to propose various steps to lessen the environmental impact of oil industry activity in Kern.

The California Independent Petroleum Association trade group has not taken a position on the bill.

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