Victory: A Working-Class Neighborhood Defends Itself Against a Dangerous Gas Project -– And Wins

Personal Health

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.”

Ethel Brown, 78, is among the homeowners who signed a lease agreement in the project’s early days. “I really did not understand the ramifications of signing the lease,” she stated in a letter to the Commission.  “I was told that this was a perfectly safe project.”  Brown did not hear about the project’s risks until two years later.  “Much to my dismay, I learned how very dangerous this project is to my family and community…If I had known what I had learned from the [environmental impact report], I would not have signed the lease.”  Up until the final Commission vote, SNGS continued to cite these same lease agreements as evidence of public support.

Greenlining Joins a Diligent Oppositon

AGENA and their pro bono team at Legal Services of Northern California (LSNC) diligently opposed the project at every step.  For five years, residents put their lives on hold to stage rallies, file opposition briefs, and maintain a community presence at Commission meetings.   

“The community was highly involved throughout the process,” said Stephen Goldberg, staff attorney at LSNC.  “AGENA’s organizing was absolutely essential to the litigation effort at the [Commission].”

The Greenlining Institute was uniquely positioned to supplement this effort in its final round.  After several years of working with the Commission, Greenlining has cultivated a reputation of objectivity, thorough and reasoned analysis, and an eagerness to seek win-win solutions with business and industry.  Unfortunately, in this case, mutual benefit was not an option; the project simply needed to be stopped.

The Final Push

With the final vote approaching quickly, all parties went in full force.  After extensive research, our team toured the proposed project area and attended an all-party meeting convened by Commissioner Catherine Sandoval – the undecided vote – in Sacramento, where area residents coordinated an impressive demonstration to oppose the project.  These efforts culminated in Greenlining sending a position letter to each of the Commissioners, consolidating the opposition’s most compelling points with new evidence and arguments generated by our team (you can read that letter here).

In the last week before the vote, Greenlining convened private meetings with Commission executives and high level advisors, including the Commission’s President, Michael R. Peevey.  Goldberg noted that “Greenlining’s meetings with the Commissioners were extremely helpful because those were meetings that we were unable to get.”  At these meetings, our team emphasized its concerns about public safety and lack of community outreach, particularly the dearth of consideration given to tenants.  We also highlighted new evidence that SNGS seriously misled residents about the conclusions of the environmental impact report by distributing a flyer containing blatant falsehoods.

At the same time, area residents banded together for their final push.  Two days before the Commission’s vote, a large group of community members rallied in the neighborhood’s Danny Nunn Park, immediately across the street from the proposed project site.  Then, at 5:45 AM the morning of the final voting meeting, more than thirty residents boarded a bus from Sacramento to the Commission’s headquarters in San Francisco.  Representatives of the Avondale/Glen Elder community packed the auditorium as resident after resident approached the microphone to voice their opposition one last time.  The concerns of community stakeholders were supported by the Greenlining Institute in a final public comment (you can watch that here).

A Hard-Fought Victory

But no policy battle can be won without decision makers willing to take a principled stand in the face of a powerful interest.  In May, Commissioner Michel Florio – a noted consumer advocate – authored an impassioned decision denying the project (you can read that decision here).  Newly-appointed Commissioner Mark Ferron surprised many by joining this decision, emphasizing that state policy only allows significant public safety risks if a project has overriding benefits. 

When it finally came time for Commissioner Sandoval to cast the deciding vote, the tension in the room was palpable.  Up until the last moment, even the Commissioner’s closest advisors seemed unsure of her decision. 

“The question before us is really a balance of the needs of this project against the potential harms,” Sandoval began, adding that she appreciated the comments offered by community residents.  She went on to discuss the unprecedented nature of permitting this kind of project under a densely populated neighborhood, referencing points made in Greenlining’s letter distinguishing this project from the gas storage area under Playa Del Rey.  Ultimately, given the limited need for the project and potential alternative measures, Commissioner Sandoval announced her opposition.

The crowd erupted in cheers at the final vote – an extremely close 3-2 decision denying the project.  Residents jumped from their seats and into each other’s arms, embracing through tears of joy and exhaustion after a hard-fought victory.  "I don't even think I believe it yet," said Constance Slider, Vice President of AGENA. "It has been an incredible battle, one of the biggest of my personal life and of this community's existence."

The Commission’s decision not only means that the residents of Avondale/Glen Elder succeeded in protecting themselves from this project’s serious health and safety risks, it ensures that other communities will not be forced to brave similar battles.

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