California’s multibillion-dollar problem: In Arvin, fumes remain near homes and schools

California’s multibillion-dollar problem: In Arvin, fumes remain near homes and schools

Five years ago, Elvia Garcia returned to her home in Arvin, which she said had been looted while she was gone. Since then, her family has continued to suffer from lingering headaches brought on by occasional odors. State regulators fined the company responsible for the leak, Petro Capital Resources LLC. The company installed machines on homes in the neighborhood, including Garcia’s, to remove gas — and vent it into backyards.

During a September visit to Arvin, various wells near Garcia’s neighborhood hummed as they pulled up a trickle of hydrocarbons. The odor of mercaptan, the compound added to natural gas to give it its distinctive smell, hung in the air. At one site, oil stained a patch of dirt, the leak appearing to originate from another company’s storage tank.

The largely disused wells here are part of a trend. At the industry’s peak, about 2.5 times as many wells produced as sat idle statewide. That ratio has fallen to about 1.5 times as many active as idle wells, the Times/Public Integrity analysis found.

Francisco Gonzalez, who lives down the street from Garcia, moved to Arvin to enjoy a quiet retirement outside Los Angeles. He said his family still smells nauseating levels of gas at certain times, and he worries about the health of children attending the schools across the street from wells.

“What is the company going to do?” he asked in Spanish. “They are not going to do anything.”

Jeff Williams, Petro Capital Resources’ production manager, said there can’t be leaks in homes because the pipeline hasn’t been used since 2014 and wells are pulling up only enough gas to relieve pressure buildup. He said the company has no near-term plans to plug and abandon the wells because it hopes to one day restart production there.

Two blocks away, next to Arvin High School, 25 unplugged wells owned by a company called Sunray Petroleum Inc. sit deserted, 40 years after some of them last operated. Pump jacks rise above fields of almond saplings like rusting scarecrows.

Sunray, which filed for bankruptcy in 2011 and has racked up numerous violations for unpaid fees and inadequate pollution monitoring, saw its production fall off a cliff in the late 1980s. The last of its wells went quiet in 2015.

A phone number listed for the company has been disconnected, and other attempts to reach Sunray proved futile. The company has posted a cleanup bond for its wells, but it is far less than what the law requires and what will ultimately be needed for cleanup.

In March 2017, CalGEM mailed a notice of violation to the Las Vegas-based company. In a certified letter, the division wrote that Sunray ignored requirements to test its long-idled wells, including those near Arvin High School, for indications of groundwater contamination. The agency said that failure to submit those tests could constitute a crime.

The post office sent the letter back to CalGEM with this stamp: “RETURN TO SENDER. UNCLAIMED. UNABLE TO FORWARD.”

By Mark Olalde, The Center for Public Integrity