Leaking Out Injustices

Residents of the small community of Eight Mile near Mobile, Alabama, have been dealing with the stench of rotten eggs and increased health problems due to a chemical leak. Last year, in the seventh year of the residents’ misery, a similar chemical leak occurred on the other side of the country in a town in southern California – Porter Ranch. The difference is that one leak was cleaned up and the residents taken care of after a few months, and the other has been left to take its toll on residents and the surrounding environment for eight years now.

Along with the constant rank stench, seizures, nausea, vomiting, head aches and nosebleeds are health problems of which residents of both communities complained. However, residents of Eight Mile, including both children and adults, have suffered more serious effects, such as seizures, respiratory problems, leg pain, hypertension and vision problems- all of which are believed to be caused by breathing in the leaked chemical mercaptan that still lingers in the area. The extensive and more serious problems could likely be due to the very prolonged amount of time the Eight Mile residents have been exposed to the toxic chemical.

The chemical leak in Porter Ranch, an affluent community, occurred at the Aliso Canyon natural gas facility, owned by Sempra Energy, based in San Diego. Interestingly, Sempra Energy also owned the Eight Mile facility up until last month, when Sempra sold it to the local gas company Mobile Gas. The Eight Mile incident was caused by lightning striking a gas line and pouring an estimated 500 gallons of mercaptan into the ground water. Sempra claims that the leak was discovered just a few months before they acquired the utility in October 2008, and owned it for almost all of the eight years since the leak occurred.

As opposed to the residents in porter Ranch, residents in Eight Mile have not been relocated to different homes out of harm’s way

Mercaptan is the chemical that is added to natural gas to help detect leaks, which contains compounds of sulfur and mercury. It has long been considered to be fairly harmless to humans (though mercury is proven to be toxic), hence why much research has gone into detecting if mercaptan has been the true cause of the health problems. Dr. Jeffrey Nordella, an urgent care physician in Porter Ranch, disagrees with the notion that mercaptan is not all that dangerous. He has been researching the effects of the chemical since the leak occurred. “Mercaptan is toxic to the human body,” Nordella said. “The question is exposure — how much and for how long?” Cases have been documented of people dying from exposure to large amounts of variants of mercaptan in a short amount of time, but how a smaller amount would effect people over the course of long time is the unknown being researched.

As opposed to the residents in porter Ranch, residents in Eight Mile have not been relocated to different homes out of harm’s way, transferred to different schools, or given treatment for their ailments. In the first few months, the Aliso Canyon leak attracted government officials and investigators to solve the problem, while at the same time, Eight Mile had been suffering for seven years mostly unattended to. The court has been lax, as hundreds of residents have filed lawsuits, which are still under litigation, and only few residents have obtained settlement.

At Aliso Canyon, methane also leaked out along with mercaptan, causing more concern due to threat of explosion, air quality decline and climate change. However, even with a more urgent threat, it still took four months for the affected well to be sealed. At Eight Mile, Mobile Gas claims that only mercaptan leaked from the pipeline, possibly showing why it has been shrugged off for so long, not having as large of a proven threat, since the effects of mercaptan have not largely been researched. Along with this reasoning for not acting quickly, Eight Mile is a smaller, poor and predominantly black community. Sadly, this is why the residents believe they are being overlooked.

Some residents of Eight Mile have packed up and moved in the last eight years due to the all the problems, but most residents do not have the resources to leave. They are dependent upon the gas companies responsible and on the state to fix the mistakes they have made, and do their best to solve the residents’ health problems and quality of life.

Will the number eight in Eight Mile turn out to be a foreshadowing for the number of years it would take for government officials to finally act and do justice for Eight Mile, or will it take even longer? Affluent or non-affluent town, resources to offer or none, pretty reputation or not as pretty- all of these aside, people are still people and should be treated equally no matter their livelihoods. The treatment of the rich California town after a toxic leak contrasted with the picture of the poor Alabama town after a toxic leak is a stark, but accurate, picture of injustice in our society. Hopefully after this situation has come into more light, things will begin to change. Positively, after a recent march at the state Capitol this month, the Alabama governor had agreed to meet with residents to discuss options.

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