Phil McCarten/Reuters

Toxic fumes, health concerns remain after LA pipeline rupture

Firm behind spill was fined $3.25M in 2010 for violations of Clean Water Act

Toxic fumes continued to hang in the air at an industrial area of Los Angeles Friday, a day after a pipeline run by a company with a checkered history of accidents ruptured and spilled at least 18,000 gallons of crude oil onto city streets.

“We can smell fumes, but we’re all in today for work,” said an employee at Plumbing and Industrial Supply, a business next door to The Gentleman’s Club, a strip joint that served as the epicenter to the spill and was showered in crude during the rupture in the early hours of Thursday morning.  

At least four people became ill from the fumes and two were hospitalized after the oil soaked an area about a half-block long, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD).

It has since emerged that the company behind the pipeline, Plains All American Pipeline LP, has been held responsible for at least 10 violations of the Clean Water Act due to various spills over the last decade.

Last month, a train carrying its crude exploded near Lynchburg, Virginia, spilling into the nearby James River.

And in 2010, Plains was fined $3.25 million by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over pipeline ruptures between 2004-2007. The company promised a $41 million upgrade to over 10,000 miles of its pipelines after the settlement to improve safety.

Following the latest accident, the firm deployed a team as part of ongoing cleanup efforts.

But an employee at Ames Industrial Supply, another business affected by the spill, said that fumes continue to linger.

“They cleaned up the oil in our parking lot yesterday … we can still smell the oil,” said the staff member, who declined to give a name. 

Los Angeles County public health director Dr. Jonathan E. Fielding, said that people living or working in the area might experience “mild, temporary health impacts” including eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, dizziness or upset stomachs.

Those working on the cleanup Thursday were pictured wearing respirators and protective overalls.

Plains did not respond to Al Jazeera's request for comment, but in an earlier statement said that the smell “may cause a nauseous feeling, but poses no danger to responders or neighbors." Yet on their website, Plains recommended that anyone in an area where a spill occurred “immediately leave the area, on foot, in an upwind direction.”

“Avoid making contact with escaping liquids or vapors,” the company added.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District, responsible for monitoring the air in Orange County and Los Angles, said Thursday that latest results indicated a low-risk to the general public, the LA Times reported. The Los Angeles health department said the symptoms are not expected to lead to long-term health problems.

There have been limited studies carried out on the long-term health effects of crude oil spills. A long-term health impact study focused on the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is underway, carried out by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a government research center.

But researchers say it will be years before they can determine if exposure to the oil and dispersants leads to chronic health problems.

“The reality is no one knows 100 percent because they won’t do the health impact studies. They could have done it here after the spill, or at Mayflower [Arkansas],” said Michelle BarlondSmith, a resident living on the Kalamazoo River when energy firm Enbridge's Line 6B pipeline ruptured in 2010.

The Line 6B rupture spilled over 1 million gallons of Canadian tar sands oil, contaminating the nearby Kalamazoo River. Afterward, with no authorities on the scene, BarlondSmith went door to door conducting a health survey and has continued to monitor residents' health over the years.

Residents have complained of memory loss, asthma, and other respiratory problems as well as rashes, heart attacks, kidney issues, and cancer.

Though tar sands oil is considered to be among the most toxic of fossil fuels, as extra chemicals are added to the crude in order to allow the viscous oil to flow through pipelines, conventional crude comes with its own set of health risks. Benzene is one known human carcinogen present in crude oil.

Todd Heywood, among the first reporters on the scene at the Kalamazoo spill, has written about the impact of the tar sands oil on his immune system. As someone living with HIV, Heywood submitted himself to regular health checkups.

Tests on his immune system recorded a deterioration following his exposure to the toxic fumes. Heywood attributes the change to his inhalation of the tar sand vapors.

“I would absolutely encourage anyone in that area to get out and stay out … if they can smell the oil, they’re in danger,” Heywood said

Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) spokeswoman Katherine Main told Al Jazeera that the LAFD notified Plains about the spill after being called on scene around 12:16 AM Thursday morning.

“They immediately notified the pipeline company who remotely shut down the valve,” Main said.

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