Victory: A Working-Class Neighborhood Defends Itself Against a Dangerous Gas Project -– And Wins
Residents celebrating the victory outside the California Public Utilities Commission.
Photo Credit: Greenlining Institute
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When facing an uphill battle, the best chance for success is to coordinate a dual strategy – working simultaneously from the bottom-up and the top-down. In policy struggles, this requires citizen groups vigilantly applying pressure at the grassroots level, seasoned policy advocates operating within the system, and decision makers willing to brave the political pushback of a difficult choice. Recently, the Greenlining Institute worked alongside a neighborhood association and its legal team to implement this perfect storm of strategies and stop a threat to the community’s health and safety – setting important state precedent along the way.
An Unprecedented Danger
In April 2007, Sacramento Natural Gas Storage (SNGS) first sought approval to store 8 billion cubic feet of natural gas beneath a densely-populated, urban community in southeast Sacramento, California. The affected neighborhood, Avondale/Glen Elder, is a product of historic redlining – the illegal practice of denying services to communities of color.
This project is the first of its kind to be reviewed by the California Public Utilities Commission. While gas storage areas are not new, these projects are typically confined to sparsely-populated areas to lessen the significant public health and safety risks. Yet SNGS sought to operate its facility directly beneath the homes of thousands of residents and working families, a community park, and two local schools. After reviewing the specifics of this plan, a group of residents formed the Avondale/Glen Elder Neighborhood Association (AGENA) to defend their community and defeat this project.
High Risks and Huge Obstacles
Since the tragic natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California two years ago, the Commission reaffirmed protecting public health and safety as its top priority. But five years into its review of SNGS’ project, the Commission was split: two Commissioners rumored to support it, two against, and one undecided.
In early 2010, an environmental impact report found “significant and unavoidable impacts” in three major areas: gas migration, groundwater contamination, and construction noise. Gas migration represents a latent public health and safety risk as gas accumulates in confined spaces – creating risk of fire, explosion, or asphyxiation. This risk is aggravated by the findings of some experts that faults or fractures might exist in the sandstone barrier between the high-pressured gas and residents’ homes. Groundwater contamination is also a serious concern, as the project poses a risk to local drinking water. Lastly, construction noise would subject residents to loud, 24/7 drilling for months at a time.
These serious risks were countered only by sparse and uncertain benefits, with half of the stored gas set aside as one of several possible back-up power supplies for a Sacramento utility. But, in this case, the principal benefit of the project was a $15 to 20 million yearly profit for SNGS, a private natural gas company.
In late 2007, before any of these risks had been assessed, SNGS went door-to-door to solicit lease agreements from property owners. These agreements would allow operation of the gas storage area beneath their homes in exchange for a small annual payment. The Sacramento Bee reported that SNGS representatives approached property owners just weeks before Christmas with $500 checks, gas cards, and other inducements in hand. In addition, many landlords who signed these agreements do not reside in the affected neighborhood, and there were few, if any, attempts to engage tenants in this process.
Two years later, the Commission’s own Consumer Protection and Safety Division (CPSD) found that SNGS was intentionally “imposing obstacles to [community members’] opposition” and “abusing the Commission process by coaching and intimidating customers” to create false support for its project. CPSD further determined that the company repeatedly misrepresented itself to residents, falsely claiming that owners who refused to sign leases would be “subject to an eminent domain action.”