17 News Special Report: What Lies Beneath

Published 04/15 2014 06:08PM

Updated 04/15 2014 10:03PM

It's been nearly a month since 47 people were evacuated from their homes because of a pipeline leak in north Arvin, a mess the county and others still are trying to clean up. State and local officials admit this is by no means an isolated incident because underground pipes aren't necessarily regulated, inspected, or even mapped.

County and state officials say there are hundreds of pipeline spills reported each year. Most go unnoticed because they're in remote areas. But a few, like in the one in Arvin, hit neighborhoods, unearthing pipeline problems emergency responders have been dealing with for years.

In Arvin it started with an odor. County officials said they were notified of March 12th.

"It smells kind of like natural gas and butane," said Feliz Loya a resident in the affected neighborhood.

Kern County Public Health officials detected gas behind eight homes in Arvin. Initially they thought the gas leak was dissipating, asking for voluntary evacuation Monday, March 17th but the next day the gas was back with a vengeance.

"At this stage we simply need the families out," said Supervisor Leticia Perez on March 18th.

Perez with the Kern County Fire Department then evacuated 47 residents and their pets because the explosive oil field gas was detected in the homes sending dozens to family friends and to a Bakersfield hotel.

"I just don't want to leave. I want to stay home," said Sabrina Garcia, an evacuee the night she left her home.

One month later the evacuees have been moved to an apartment. Officials are starting to vacuum the explosive gas from the ground but it's a process that could take years since no one knows how long this line was leaking.

"I told my husband we could have all been asleep and woke up dead," said Ysenia Lara, an evacuee.

What 17 News discovered about this line, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, or DOGGR, said it had never been inspected. In fact, the owner of the line, Petro Capital Resources didn't even know it existed, even though the company was using it daily.

"I think it's very irresponsible on both parties," said Lara. "How you going to buy something you didn't know the blueprints of?"

That may be partly because until 2011 the state did not require oil lease operators to map all their underground lines. Even though it is required now, it's sometimes a hand drawn map, not to scale, and accessible to first responders only upon request.

"It's a problem that needs to be looked at," said Bob Gorman, Division Chief for the Pipeline Safety Division of Cal Fire.

To add to the confusion there's no one database that maps all underground lines, it's a combination. So when first responders are dispatched to a leak, it's a game of guess who can turn off the pipe, a game Kern County Public Health played in Arvin.

"We spent a couple of days, probably even several days, trying to identify potential responsible parties. That was valuable time we wasted," said Matt Constantine, Director of Kern County Public Health.

So how many pipeline leaks are there in Kern County? While the State Fire Marshall's Office only responded to one leak in the last five years, DOGGR said it responded to 126.

In terms of utilities, in just one year PG&E responded to 279 leaks, not including breaks from third party dig-ins.

"I would have to say that probably the majority are not in neighborhoods that we respond to. They are out in remote areas of the county," said Donna Fenton of Kern County Environmental Health.

So how often are these lines inspected? PG&E said it visually checks all its lines lines and strength tests all 375 miles transmission lines every 10 years. The State Fire Marshall's Office said it inspects its lines every five years.

But DOGGR said it only checks lines four inches or more in diameter. How many miles that excludes, DOGGR couldn't tell us.

We asked DOGGR why? While the Division said it did not have time to speak to us on camera a spokesperson said via email, "It's impractical. We'd need an army of inspectors to work around the clock." In addition DOGGR admits that is is possible, "there are older abandoned/and or inactive pipelines that current operators and the division are not aware of."

"We're trying to make up for 70 years of bad habits, really," said Gorham.

Those bad habits being unmapped, unregulated Kern County oil fields that 50 years later may be abandoned but still in existence.

"People are living in and around those areas that used to have oil fields in them and when they abandoned the field typically they abandoned those lines," said Collins. "Do we know where they are? Is there anything in there? It can be a hazard, surely."

So even if you call 811, the hot line that marks underground utilities, it is not a guarantee you'll know every line underneath your home.

"It may not give you all the information you need," said Fenton.

Those in Arvin said they had no idea a pipeline came so close to their homes. According to the City of Arvin the homes were built in the 1990s and DOGGR said the pipeline was laid in the 1970s, never knowing someday it would put their family in danger.

DOGGR said the incident in Arvin is forcing the Division to take a look whether there is a gap in regulation.

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