Maria Madrigal has lived in Sun Valley, in the San Fernando Valley, for the last 33 years. Recently she learned that the Department of Water and Power (LADWP) Valley Generating Station — adjacent to her neighborhood — has been emitting a methane leak for several months. That is a big concern for her because she wasn’t aware of this. 

“We were never told about the problem and for months we have been breathing in these toxic emissions,” said the 69-year-old woman. “I live two blocks from the towers and nobody bothered to come and tell us to protect ourselves.”

A few months ago Madrigal began to have dizziness and she thinks the problem worsens in the afternoon when she goes for a walk. She feels the current situation is very bad for her health because while she’s trying to protect herself from COVID-19, there’s another silent enemy attacking her. 

María Madrigal protests for clean air in her neighborhood. Photo by Andrés Rivera/Pacoima Beautiful
María Madrigal protests for clean air in her neighborhood. Photo by Andrés Rivera/Pacoima Beautiful

“I finally was able to buy my house and now where am I going to go? I can’t go anywhere. This problem must be solved”, she said. 

Carlos Regalado, another resident of the area, said that a while ago the LADWP said in a period of 10 years they planned to completely close the plant in Sun Valley or change it to a cleaner air method.

 “And in exchange for their promise they do this. Methane is very bad because we cannot see it but it affects us all, ”said the 18 year-old man, who can see the plant that is affecting his neighborhood’s health every day from his apartment complex.

Regalado said he has lived in the same neighborhood for the past 14 years and has suffered from a stuffy nose for several years. He thinks that it may be related to the plant because when he leaves his neighborhood the congestion disappears but when he returns home the problem returns again.

He also knows several children in the area who suffer from asthma, including one of his cousins.

Demanding explanations

On Tuesday Madrigal, Regalado and other residents gathered with a group of activists from the Pacoima Beautiful organization to protest in front of the LADWP plant, located in the 11801 block of Sheldon Street in Sun Valley.

The protesters called for an immediate investigation and a transparent report of exactly how long the leak has been going on, the amount of emissions released and the radius of impact.

They also demanded the immediate closure of the Valley Generating Station to repair the equipment and end the methane leak.

Carlos Regalado and Diego Ortiz protest outside Sun Valley's LADWP plant on Sept. 8, 2020. Photo by Andrés Rivera, Pacoima Beautiful
Carlos Regalado and Diego Ortiz protest outside Sun Valley’s LADWP plant on Sept. 8, 2020. Photo by Andrés Rivera, Pacoima Beautiful

Andrés Ramirez, Pacoima Beautiful policy director, said that what bothers them the most is that the plant was emitting this toxic gas without taking into account the well-being of the residents.

“The methane that is leaking out causes dizziness, headaches, memory loss and more,” Ramirez said. “LADWP had said that it is nothing serious but we believe that they take advantage because we are not rich and this is a primarily Latino and African-American community that has been here for generations.”

Ramirez said they want LADWP representatives to establish communication with the residents of the area through a public meeting that is at an appropriate time for the community, in the afternoon or on a weekend.

“We want them to come and tell us step by step how the leak happened and what they plan to do,” said Ramirez.

They also want the plant to shut down for at least two weeks so the problem can be resolved and they expect to hear about a plan in place to permanently shut it down in the future or move to cleaner air.

The activists said LADWP had known about the leak since, at least, August 2019 but didn’t say anything.

An emissions study carried by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory by drone found about it and then the problem was made public.

On August 25, LADWP General Manager Martin Adams admitted during the Board of Commissioners meeting that JPL found a significant amount of methane emitted from the Valley Generating Station.

Additionally, LADWP staff admitted to having previously known about a methane leak originating from a faulty compressor equipment as early as September 2019.

Norman Cahill, LADWP’s director of operations and power supply, added that nearly 10,000 standard cubic feet/hr had been leaking in the last couple years.

In response to the disclosure, LADWP said in a statement that they completely shut down one of the compressors and after additional repairs. By Tuesday, September 1, the methane gas leak was reduced by 95%, they assured. 

The company’s focus now is to keep the community better informed, Adams told the board of commissioners yesterday.

However, he added that it is also important to recognize that Valley Generating Station is an integral part of the power supply transformation. 

 “As we rebuild our system and reach for our goals of greening out entire grid, we rely on Valley, and other power plants to keep the system running.”

The general manager agreed that they could and should have done more to inform the community.

“We are committed to doing so moving forward so that we may build trust with the community and our stakeholders.”

Jacqueline Garcia is a reporter with La Opinión. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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Jacqueline Garcia is a reporter covering poverty and inequality issues for our California Divide collaboration. She is based at La Opinion newspaper in Los Angeles, where she has covered issues ranging...