Something Stinks on the Westside ... It’s More Than Just the ‘Great Mercaptan Leak’

ALPERN AT LARGE--After hundreds of thousands of Westsiders from the Santa Monica Mountains to Playa Del Rey were terrified by what appeared to be a toxic natural gas leak (is it OUR home, or the neighbor's home?!), the answer appears to be … a leaking barrel of Mercaptan odorant near the Rancho Park golf course. 

What is NOT answered is why there isn't a greater effort to educate the public as to what happened, and a greater effort to ensure that our utility and utility-associated companies are held accountable for avoiding such disasters. 

The Mercaptan spill offers us all a teaching moment:  natural gas (methane) is ODORLESS (many reading or not reading this do not know that), so this obnoxious and nasty odor (the chemical Mercaptan) is ADDED to let us all know if there's a leak in our home, in our stoves, etc.  Natural gas is not safe to breathe in, and the risk of an explosion or respiratory health hazard is very serious. 

Mercaptan itself is NOT natural gas, but the profound and toxic odor affected the health of those located next to, and even distant from, the source of the leak.  Overland Avenue Elementary School was closed the following morning, and the ability of many Westsiders to leave their homes was profoundly, if not entirely, limited because of the intensity of the odor. 

So when the Hillcrest Beverly Oil Corporation at 10310 West Pico Blvd., located next to the Rancho Park Golf Course, had a leaking barrel of Mercaptan scare the begeezus out of the Westside, this is a problem that raises a host of questions). 

We need natural gas, and the price of civilized society is having to live next to potentially dangerous chemicals.   

But with the Porter Ranch/Aliso Canyon gas leak in October 2015, the largest gas leak in U.S. history (LINK: ), the concerns about the declining condition of the Playa Del Rey facility are entirely valid. 

How quickly and easily were SoCalGas crews able to clean up the Mercaptan spill at the Hillcrest Beverly Oil Corporation?  Are the rumors that they weren't allowed in so easily to private property just that ... rumors? 

What disciplinary action, and/or precautionary measures, will be taken by SoCalGas and the private corporation that stored the Mercaptan to prevent such a leak from recurring? 

Accidents happen, and humans are ... well ... human.  Was this Mercaptan spill avoidable, or was this negligence? 

Perhaps MOST importantly, the remarkable dearth of facts and explanations and attention by LA City officials on the leak is rather stark and glaring to those of us who simply want answers. 

Is the City and the private corporation in fact-finding mode, or legal "cover your butt" mode?  We rightfully pay for our utilities, and we rightfully deserve answers. 

And this gas leak makes the collective image of SoCalGas, the City, and any associated entities all the less credible.  And with the concerns over the Playa Del Rey facility as valid as ever, and with the Porter Ranch/Aliso Canyon spill fresh in our memories, the need for answers and reassurance that proper actions are being taken is greater than ever. 

To suggest that "something smells" with respect to the condition of our utilities/infrastructure is pretty obvious.  What is NOT so obvious is whether the right public and private entities are doing the right things, and taking the right actions, and providing the right information, to ensure this won't happen again.


 (Kenneth S. Alpern, M.D. is a dermatologist who has served in clinics in Los Angeles, Orange, and Riverside Counties, and is a proud father and husband to two cherished children and a wonderful wife. He is also a Westside Village Zone Director and Board member of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Co-Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee. He was co-chair of the CD11 Transportation Advisory Committee and chaired the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at [email protected]. He also co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at www.fogl.us. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Dr. Alpern.)