Porter Ranch gas leak in 8th week and not going away

porter-ranch-gas-well.jpgJavier Mendoza/SoCalGas in the Guardian.

This is bad. Since at least Oct. 23, methane has been escaping from a well in the Santa Susana Mountains just above the homes in Porter Ranch at a massive rate, and Southern California Gas has not been able to stop it. Something like 3,000 people have temporarily moved out of their homes because of the odor, headaches, runny noses or concern about a worse calamity. Two schools in the area may now have to temporarily close. The amount of methane released into atmosphere has apparently undone much of California's recent steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — methane being one of the badder ones.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to declare a state of emergency and seek state and federal assistance. The state has already had its inspectors at the scene, but their current position seems to be that this is the gas company's problem to fix. The gas is escaping from underground storage caverns in the Aliso Canyon oil field, which lies under the hills above the streets of Porter Ranch. This is one of the newest bedroom communities in Los Angeles, not existing at all until the 1960s and still growing with neighborhoods of new homes under construction. The oil field was there long before the first suburban tract was built, and for most of the time residents could put the SoCal Gas operation and ongoing oil drilling out of their minds.

Those days are over. Already, an attorney has helped some resident file a class-action lawsuit over the leak. Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer has sued SoCal Gas. A neighborhood group formed to oppose expanded oil drilling in the hills above Porter Ranch now has a bigger issue for members to rally around, and enviro activist Erin Brockovich attended the last community meeting. There's an election next year to fill the seat of Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who represents the area, and the City Council member for Porter Ranch, Mitch Englander, is running hard for the promotion. This could become a main issue in that race and Englander is all over the scene. Mayor Eric Garcetti has been out to Porter Ranch, which helped get the media to elevate the gas leak to top of the news.

"It’s the climate equivalent of the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico: the rupture of a natural gas storage site in California that is spewing vast amounts of methane into the atmosphere and is likely to go unchecked for three months," The Guardian informed residents of the U.K. earlier this month. From today's Daily News story:

“This action will seek state and federal assistance for our residents in the Porter Ranch area with additional air monitoring and help with efforts to cap the well,” Antonovich said in a statement. “The residents ... have suffered for more than 50 days since the gas leak was discovered.”

The supervisor noted that 88 air purifiers have been installed in the community and 275 have been scheduled for installation in the area.

“While the gas company is working to address the leak, we still do not have a clear timeline as to when this crisis will be resolved. While county agencies have been monitoring the gas leak to assess the public health threat, we have called on the governor and state agencies including the Public Utilities Commission and the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources for assistance,” Antonovich said.

The Los Angeles City Council also approved four emergency motions related to the leak that were submitted by Councilman Mitchell Englander, chairman of the Public Safety Committee. One of those motions called for the council to support the supervisors’ action.

The motions also dealt with the gas company’s relocation efforts, residential tax relief and business tax relief.

“Due to the mass relocation of residents, short-term health effects experienced and the poor air quality in the vicinity of the gas leak, compounded by the uncertainty as to when a solution will be reached, it is imperative that the governor step in and declare a local emergency so this community can receive the resources it needs,” Englander said in a statement.

SoCal Gas says it has helped 1,675 households move into temporary accommodations. Another 1,217 households are making arrangements to move out and the gas company says it is working to contact the residents of another 473 homes. The company says it will open a community resource center today at 19731 Rinaldi Street.

The natural gas, which already has the chemical added so it can be detected by the human nose, is leaking from a broken well that has so far defeated repair attempts. SoCal Gas is trying to drill a relief well into the subterranean chamber to relieve some of the pressure, but that is taking some time. Experts from Middle Eastern oil fields have been brought in to help.

I talked about the gas leak on my LA Observed segment on KCRW last week. Yesterday, Press Play with Madeleine Brand sent reporter Saul Gonzalez out to the scene.

Last week, a company released infrared video of the escaping gas.

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