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Seven Months After Gas Leak Arvin Residents Still Can't Return Home

Earlier this year eight Kern County families were forced out of their homes because of a gas leak. Now, seven months later families are still asking questions about their health and when they can return to their neighborhood.

When Yesenia Lara bought her home three years ago she never imagined living there would eventually bring so much anger and sadness to her family.

"This is my house, estaes mi casa. Excuse the mess but I hardly come here."

Lara rarely goes to her own house in Arvin, southeast of Bakersfield, because she's not allowed to live there. It's been this way since the evening of March 18.

"They came to the house and told everybody they had to evacuate within an hour," she says. "They said you have to grab whatever you can approximately for seven days we’re evacuating everybody because the house is in danger of explosion."

On that day, Kern County officials evacuated families from eight homes on Nelson Court after they discovered a toxic gas leak from an underground pipeline. Testing results found dangerous and explosive levels of flammable gases including methane and benzene near and inside several homes.

"What we determined in a few of the homes is it exceeded the explosive levels," says Matt Constantine, the director of Kern County Public Health. "If there was a source of ignition and those gases were able to concentrate it potentially could explode.” 

Constantine says the gas had saturated the soil underneath the houses and was spreading inside.

"All of a sudden that American dream has turned into a nightmare." Juan Flores

But this isn’t like the natural gas that runs to your stove or heater. It’s a pipeline that carries field gas. It’s raw, waste gas from a nearby oil field that’s being sent to a well flare to burn off. The pipeline belongs to Petro Capital Resources.

Now, seven months after the evacuation order residents like Yesenia Lara have yet to return.

"Nobody ever thought it was going to take this long," she says. "I think this is the first time in history locally that something this severe has happened."

Credit Diana Aguilera / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Yesenia Lara walks through her living room surrounded by new furniture she had ordered prior to the evacuation.

Up to this point no one knows how long it's been since the line started leaking. But some families say they've noticed the smell of gas for several months and even years. Lara, the mother of three, says the situation got so bad her 6-year-old son's nose wouldn't stop bleeding.

"My son I had to take him to Fresno because he started bleeding in the morning and it was 9 p.m. and the bleeding wouldn’t stop."

After the families were evacuated Lara found out they weren't the only ones with strange symptoms.

"We started to talk to each other once we were at the hotel. Everybody had the same thing headache, dizziness, getting tired easily," she says. "And I thought OK so the whole block was feeling it."

Once the company realized it would take months to conduct testing, they housed the families in an apartment complex in Bakersfield.

Sabrina Garcia, 16, says the families just want to know the truth.

“I would want them to tell me if my house is going to be cleared to go in and if not they should tell us it’s not going to work out," she says. "And be straight up with us and tell us we’re not getting our house back.”

When the evacuation was ordered back in March it took a few days for the county to figure out who owned that specific pipeline.

Larry Pickett, the spokesman for PCR, which owns the pipeline says the company immediately shut down the pipeline and began to clean up the soil.

Credit Diana Aguilera / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Nelson Court residents affected by the gas leak have filed claims seeking more than $10 million in damages against Kern County and the city of Arvin.

"The latest is all of the initial testing was completed, and results were given to the county health department," he says.

In late August, PCR said their cleanup efforts were successful and told residents it was safe for them to return home.

 But the families weren’t satisfied. They wanted a second opinion. And in October the Kern County Board of Supervisors agreed to move forward with follow-up testing for explosive gases.

"They asked the county if we would please do confirmatory testing so they could have some peace of mind and feel that their children, their families, their animals are going to be safe if they choose to return home," says Leticia Perez, a Kern County supervisor.

But some like Juan Flores with The Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment say the county could have done a better job.

"It’s way too late," he says. "The county is barely going to come out to do their own study. What gases are they going to find? If those gases had been vented out already.”

Flores says he's been working closely with residents since March.

"Some of them had been working their whole lives as farm workers and the little money they had been able to save they invested into buying these homes," he says.

"All of a sudden that American dream has turned into a nightmare."

Credit Diana Aguilera / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Elvia Garcia says she has to drive at least twice a day, sometimes four, to Arvin to pick up her children at school and then spend 30 minutes driving back to Bakersfield.

Back at Nelson Court, resident Elvia Garcia gives me a tour of her deserted home. She has lived in her home in Arvin  for 20 years. Garcia says she expected more support from the county, but at the end she was just disappointed.

"I spoke to them and asked them to cover the costs of medical checkups when we got evacuated to see if my kids are healthy, but the county said no," Garcia says in Spanish. "I spoke to someone who told me they’re not going to do anything about it."

I asked both the county and the company who would pay for the families' medical expenses and so far they're pointing fingers at each other.

"From my perspective the company is responsible to pay for those services," says Supervisor Perez ."It was their line, they’re break caused these harms. I believe at least in costs is the responsibility of the company."

But Pickett, the spokesman with PCR, says they're not the only ones who should take responsibility.

"Any health related issues ... county health is the agency dealing with that," Pickett says. "Like I said it that hasn't even come up for discussion so I don't know… Whether they go to county health, then county health might get the company involved at that point."

Kern County says the additional testing is already happening, but it's not clear when the results will be released.

In the meantime, residents remain in Bakersfield hoping if they're lucky enough they'll be home by Christmas.

Diana Aguilera is a multimedia reporter native of Santiago, Chile. It was during her childhood in Santiago where her love for journalism sparked. Diana moved to Fresno while in her teens and is a proud graduate of California State University, Fresno. While earning her degree in journalism and minor in Latin American studies, Diana worked for the Fresno Bee. Her work as a general assignment reporter continued after college and was recognized by the California Newspaper Publishers Association. In 2014, she joined Valley Public Radio. Her hobbies include yoga, traveling and reading.
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