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Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Kern Families Sue Petro Over Toxic Gas Leak

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) - Dozens of families in a rural California town had to evacuate their homes after a natural gas pipeline under their neighborhood started leaking toxic gas, the families claim in court.

The families, including several minor children, sued the owner of the pipeline, Petro Capital Resources, in Kern County Superior Court Thursday, claiming that Petro never disclosed that the pipeline ran under their Nelson Court neighborhood in Arvin.

"This is a legitimate case in which people were harmed with personal injury and property damage. Bottom line, they did nothing to cause this to happen," attorney Steven Archer told Courthouse News.

Incredible as it may seem, no one knew where the pipeline was - not even Petro, he said.

"They told DOGGR (California Department of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources) and the news that they thought it was somewhere else. It's a three-inch pipe, so small that it didn't require inspection for safety. But it's not like losing your keys," he said.

The location of the pipeline raises many questions.

"If you have a pipeline under a neighborhood, should you not use it and make sure it's sound? There are many ways to check on or inspect it, but no maintenance had been done on the pipe for decades," Archer said.

Though the pipe has a tortured, convoluted history, with its original builder now out of business, it was Petro's responsibility as the new owner to maintain it.

"They're running gas through it, so if it breaks, it's their problem," Archer pointed out.

Around March 11, 2014, Southern California Gas Company workers doing routine work in the neighborhood noticed extremely high gas levels. The next day, they determined that the source of the gas was Petro's pipeline, "which was leaking toxic and explosive gases into the homes on Nelson Court and into the air and environs at and adjacent to the leak," including several known carcinogens, methane, benzene, oil byproducts, hydrocarbons, and oil tank bottom waste, the 52-page complaint states.

Southern California Gas Company is not a party to the complaint.

Around the same time, several of the residents reported smelling noxious odors. Subsequent testing revealed that the level of toxic gas in the neighborhood was "13 times higher than levels deemed safe (by) the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency," the complaint states.

Arvin, population 19,304 as of the 2010 census, is a farming town roughly 15 miles southeast of Bakersfield, the county seat, and 100 miles north of Los Angeles. Most of the residents - 17,892 according to the census figures - are Hispanic or Latino.

The town is surrounded by the Mountain View Oilfield, which was discovered in 1933. Though oil wells and oil derricks are common sites around town, agriculture is the foundation of its economy. Given the seasonal nature of agricultural work, almost 42 percent of its residents are unemployed at certain times throughout the year, the highest number in Kern County.

Arvin was nearly destroyed in July 1952 when the White Wolf Fault ruptured and caused a magnitude 7.3 earthquake, and again in December 1977 when a massive dust storm pummeled the area. It also has the dubious distinction of having the highest levels of smog and ozone of any community in the nation, according to a 2007 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


The Nelson Court neighborhood is down the street from Arvin High School and directly across from an agricultural field typically planted with row crops. On clear days, the surrounding mountains can be seen in the distance.

Underneath the neighborhood is the three-inch pipeline at issue, which was built in 1970 and purchased by Petro in 2012. The families claim Petro did not perform any safety tests on the 42-year-old pipeline after buying it though it carried field gas and other water and gas waste to gas flares in the oil fields.

A week after the leak was discovered, eight homes in the neighborhood were evacuated due to high concentration of explosive gas that had leaked into the homes, according to the complaint.

Petro paid $30,000 to house these families at a local hotel, according to local ABC affiliate KERO.

"People's main complaints were nosebleeds, nausea, watery eyes, and emotional distress like you wouldn't believe. We have records of kids at school going to the nurse every day with nose bleeds," attorney Archer said.

The eight homes at the center of the contamination are now equipped with vapor extraction systems on the outside and methane monitors on the inside, making it nearly impossible to sell the homes, he said.

When the pipe started leaking is anyone's guess, he said.

"We've seen nothing to indicate when the leak started. No one knows, and Petro is not exactly the best of record keepers. We know it predated March 11 (2014), because it was at explosive levels by then."

Archer said the eight evacuated families were homeless from March until December. Though Petro promised to protect their homes, at least one was burglarized during that time.

"They just handled it badly from the people's perspective," Archer said. "In terms of clean up and remediation they handled things appropriately, but in terms of helping the people feel safe and taken care of, they dropped the ball."

The families say Petro "allowed the contents of the subject pipeline to leak, escape, and be released from the subject pipeline at the site and then migrate, drain, seep into and contaminate the ground under the Nelson Court neighborhood. These toxic substances made their way in, on and under the homes of the plaintiffs and into the air and soil."

Since the toxic chemicals leaked into the soil and groundwater and contaminated the air, hundreds of people have inhaled or ingested these substances, the complaint states.

Petro never warned the residents about the pipeline's presence under their homes or about the possibility of a gas leak, according to the complaint. [18]

One of the leaked substances was benzene, a known human carcinogen linked to increased risk of developing leukemia, fatal blood disorders, and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Long-term exposure to benzene can also weaken the immune and central nervous systems, making people more susceptible to illnesses, while short-term exposure can cause dizziness, drowsiness, and unconsciousness.

Thanks to Petro's failure to inspect the pipeline for leaks and weaknesses and do proper maintenance and repairs on it, the families say, they "have suffered and will continue to suffer from great physical, mental and nervous pain and suffering, including fear of cancer," and extensive medical treatment.

The gas leak has also damaged their homes and diminished the value of their personal and real properties, as well as the properties in the surrounding area, the complaint states.

Archer said one family was renting a house and decided to just move out rather than stay. Those that stayed have to deal with wondering whether it's safe to live there.

"It's just like Porter Ranch," he added, referring to the massive gas leak in Los Angeles that began last October.

The Nelson Court residents say Petro deliberately and fraudulently deceived the residents about the existence of the pipeline and the leaking of toxic gas and hazardous substances into the air and surrounding environment, jeopardizing their health and well-being and causing them to suffer "great harm."

Archer told Courthouse News he hopes to avoid going to court.

"Given that this is a single defendant case, and that it's clear that Petro didn't inspect or maintain the pipeline that caused the leak, my hope is that rather than doing written discovery, we can come to the table and discuss resolutions," he said.

Since they are still checking medical records and calculating monetary losses, he and his firm don't know what that resolution looks like just yet.

Attempts to send emailed requests for comment through Petro's website Friday afternoon were met with 404 error messages. Phone calls to a number for Petro listed online and in the printed telephone book went to an automated message saying the phone number was incorrect.

The families seek reimbursement for past and future medical expenses, diminution of property values, and loss of earning capacity, and punitive and exemplary damages for 12 causes of action, including strict liability for ultra-hazardous activity, permanent and continuing trespass, public and private nuisance, fraudulent concealment, intentional deceit, negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Archer is with the Kiesel Law office in Beverly Hills.

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