A massive natural gas leak near the suburban Los Angeles communities of Porter Ranch, Chatsworth and Northridge is expelling 110,000 pounds of methane into the atmosphere every hour. To make matters worse, gas has been flowing at this rate since October 23, 2015.
The residents of these communities — tens of thousands of them — are bearing the brunt of this environmental calamity. Many have fled their homes. Those who remain are suffering headaches, nausea, dizziness, sore throats, nose bleeds, skin rashes and shortness of breath. Postal carriers deliver the mail wearing gas masks. The air reeks of rotten eggs. The Los Angeles Unified School District has temporarily closed two public schools and relocated almost 2,000 students.
Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti stated the obvious, “This is an environmental disaster.” Indeed, Porter Ranch is already the largest recorded natural gas leak in California’s history.
Inability to Stop Aliso Canyon Gas Leak is Reminiscent of the BP Gulf Coast Oil Spill
Porter Ranch and the neighboring communities sit in the San Fernando Valley, less than 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles. Parts of these neighborhoods are as close as one-half mile from the Aliso Canyon methane gas storage facility, one of the largest underground gas storage fields in the United States.
On October 23, the Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas), which owns and operates the Aliso Canyon facility, reported that it had discovered a leak in a gas storage injection well buried 8,500 feet underground. Since that date, methane gas has been shooting through this broken steel pipeline and seeping up to the earth’s surface. The leak has continued unabated for at least two months.
The bad news for residents and the environment is that there is no end in sight. On December 1, 2015, at a Los Angeles City Council meeting, SoCalGas CEO Dennis Arriola announced that the company would need another three to four months to halt the gas flow. To date, nearly 1.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide have been released as a result of the leak.
Dave Clegern, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, says those emissions are the equivalent of driving 200,000 vehicles for a year.
SoCalGas Speaks About Methane Gas Leak
In addition to the leaking methane gas, there is evidence that hydrocarbons are also leaking from the facility. On Monday, January 4, 2016, SoCalGas acknowledged that it was installing mesh screens around the leaking facility to prevent oil droplets from drifting offsite and across the community.
Residents have also complained for weeks of dark brown residue collecting on their homes and vehicles. SoCalGas spokeswoman Trisha Muse conceded that the screens are designed to capture airborne droplets that “may have contained trace amounts of oil naturally occurring within the leaking well’s reservoir.”
Tim O’Connor, California director for the Environmental Defense Fund’s oil and gas program, compared the situation in Porter Ranch to the British Petroleum (BP) Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which poured oil into the Gulf of Mexico for more than three months during the summer of 2010.
He is not alone. Robin Greenwald, who led the litigation against BP over the Deepwater Horizon spill, has stated, “I call this ‘BP on land.’ It’s that bad.”
Methane Gas Making Residents Sick in Aliso Canyon
The effects of methane gas can be debilitating. Residents have reported headaches, nausea, dizziness, burning eyes, nose bleeds, sore throats, skin rashes, and shortness of breath. Some have even lost their balance and fallen over.
Methane’s effect on children and pets can be even more pronounced. On December 17, 2015, city officials closed two public schools and relocated nearly 2,000 students. This decision followed months of complaints by students and staff of absenteeism, class disruption, and an unusually high number of student visits to the nurse’s office. On the day that the schools were finally shuttered, the Los Angeles Times reported that “Student absences at the [two] schools ballooned from 245 the week before the leak to 1,418 last week.“
Shortly after the leak was disclosed, SoCalGas assured residents that it would offer “free, temporary relocation” for those affected by the gas leak. However, those relocations were not forthcoming for many residents.
The Los Angeles City Attorney sued the company to establish procedures for ensuring the promised relocation assistance would materialize. In a court filing, the City Attorney asserted that as of December 16, 2015, “4,550 households — more than half of the total number of households in the Porter Ranch community — have requested to be relocated, yet only 1,807 have actually been able to move from the Affected Area.”
SoCalGas has since agreed to the appointment of a mediator to resolve relocation disputes raised by residents. As of this date, however, many residents are still awaiting appropriate relocation.
No End in Sight for Porter Ranch Residents
SoCalGas is now drilling a relief well to intercept and seal the leak. By its own estimates, the well will not be completed until March 2016, at the earliest.
If the relief well is successful, the Porter Ranch leak will have continued, unabated, for more than five months, if not even longer. The disruption, health effects and property devaluation caused by this incident have already been significant, and these impacts are only going to grow as winter turns to spring.
Weitz & Luxenberg has filed lawsuits on behalf of multiple families to force SoCalGas to take certain proactive measures to protect Porter Ranch residents and provide the public with transparent air emissions data in real time. These suits also seek compensation for losses that residents have experienced as a result of the leak.
On Wednesday, January 6, 2016, from 6:30 – 9:00 p.m., Weitz & Luxenberg along with consumer advocate Erin Brockovich will host a second town hall meeting in West Hills, California.
At this meeting, Brockovich and Weitz & Luxenberg attorneys, including Robin Greenwald, will update residents on the current status of the leak and detail plans to proceed with lawsuits against SoCalGas and other the responsible parties.
If you are affected by the Aliso Canyon gas leak, we encourage you to attend the meeting tonight.
If you are affected by the leak but cannot attend tonight’s meeting, we encourage you to contact our offices at 877-413-1955 or visit our Porter Ranch Gas Leak website for more information.