Why We Are All Porter Ranch
By: Kit Cole
On October 23, 2015, residents of the quiet Southern California bedroom community of Porter Ranch found their world changed forever. That day a massive leak was discovered at the natural gas storage facility in nearby Aliso Canyon and reports of community health problems ranging from headaches to nosebleeds soon followed.
In the following weeks multiple attempts to close the well failed, and thousands of residents were relocated away from their homes. Porter Ranch had become a catastrophe – one with environmental, economic, and human consequences. The infrastructure residents barely knew was there had changed their community forever.
In the aftermath, folks have asked why the Porter Ranch community was built there in the first place, next door to a natural gas field. It’s easy to assign blame – to the housing developers, the City of Los Angeles, even the residents. It is especially easy to lay blame at the feet of the Southern California Gas Company (SoCal Gas), the gas field owner and operator, for allowing the disaster to happen.
But there is nothing unique about the events that played out at Porter Ranch. Collisions between communities and infrastructure happen all the time.
We prefer to think something like the Aliso Canyon leak couldn’t happen in our community. But the opposite is true.
We are all Porter Ranch because we all live – like it or not – in close proximity to some aspect of the infrastructure we depend on.
There are more than 527 miles of freeways in Los Angeles County alone, and 382 miles of conventional highways – and those are just the obvious features we drive every day and can’t help noticing.
There’s “invisible” infrastructure in your neighborhood, too. In November 2015, it was announced that the City of Los Angeles may start to embed cell phone towers inside street lights. That fixture at your curb may have even more infrastructure inside of it than you know.
High-tension electrical lines, airports, power plants and substations, landfills and recycling centers, gas stations, flood-control channels and more are all around us. They’re in our neighborhoods and – in many cases – in our backyards.
We generally ignore infrastructure until it becomes a real or perceived problem – that’s just human nature. When the infrastructure gets bigger, changes, or becomes dangerous (as at Porter Ranch), we often react with surprise and hostility.
But the infrastructure around us isn’t going away. In fact, as population density increases and we demand better and more sophisticated communications technology (and the electricity that powers it), the amount and kinds of infrastructure surrounding us will only increase.
The reality is that the 13 million of us in the LA Basin, living within an area of less than 5,000 square miles, need water, power, communications, and jobs, and the only way to provide these is through infrastructure. The same is true for every community in Southern California, and beyond.
Where there are people, there is infrastructure
So how can we live peacefully (and potentially even happily) with the facilities we need to deliver the services we want? Is there a way to respond to new projects – or address problems with old ones – in a more constructive way than denial or anger?
I believe there is. Companies that are our neighbors must begin to treat the general public as partners, rather than an inconvenience that is occasionally told about what’s happening at the facility next door.
And we, as the public, must stop seeing big companies as evil organizations, run by Darth Vader-ish executives or, even worse, seeing companies as gigantic ATM machines, providing cash handouts to placate us. Companies are run and staffed by people, many of whom live in the same communities they affect.
If not cash handouts, then what can communities gain from corporations? How about access to highly skilled people who can become partners in solving community problems? Companies can use their relationships and expertise to bring community leaders together with government agencies and private nonprofits and the results can be amazing.
One underserved Southern California community was able to figure out a way to address chronic flooding caused by lack of gutters and sidewalks, because they worked together with a waste-management company to approach LA City and County. Rather than a handout, they were empowered to solve one of their pressing problems. And the company got permission to build a recycling center. Everyone won.
Communities must step up and think beyond outdated and overly simplistic NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”) approaches and thoughtfully leverage the resources of companies – not just money but also the company’s personnel. It is time for companies to step up to the plate and empower folks on the ground, including their employees, rather than patronizing them.
Through partnership with companies, communities can get infrastructure that works for them and also take on really tough issues, like homelessness, poverty and chronic health problems in infrastructure-dense, low-income communities. When corporate resources and community know-how gets together, there’s tremendous problem-solving potential.
There will be another Porter Ranch. It is inevitable. For as long as humans have been building mines, power plants, and dams, there have been failures. That’s why we need to come to terms with the infrastructure in our midst and get to know those who provide it – not as evil corporate overlords or as “Santa Claus” bribing us with goodies so we’ll ignore their presence, but as allies in the great urban experiment that is Los Angeles.
Kit Cole is a consultant working on changing the paradigm of how companies and communities interact. She most recently worked in community outreach at Southern California Edison.
Kit Cole Consulting