Porter Ranch Residents at Wit's End Over Months-Old Gas Leak

Madison Zimmitti, right, a third-grader at Castlebay Charter Elementary School, stopped attending classes after intense fumes from a huge gas leak nearby made her sick, Madison’s mother says. Los Angeles Unified School District trustees voted recently to close Castlebay and another campus.  (Chris Richard/KQED)

People say the rotten-egg stench is everywhere. First it’s irritating, then sickening, then crushing, maddening.

Day in, day out.

Katelin, 8 years old, says she can’t stand to play outside anymore. A 10-year-old boy says he hasn’t been able to pay attention at school -- all he wants to do is go home, make sure all the doors and windows are shut tight, and pull down the shades and go to sleep.

“We need air!” says Andrew Krowne, Katelin's father. "You’re saying not to go outside and breathe?”

The Porter Ranch neighborhood where these people live is next to SoCalGas’ Aliso Canyon Storage Facility, a complex of pumped-out oil wells in the Simi Hills, 28 miles west of downtown Los Angeles. Here, SoCalGas pumps natural gas under pressure into spongelike sandstone formations thousands of feet beneath the earth’s surface.

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The company first reported a leak in the facility's Well 25 on Oct. 23, and it’s been spewing methane unchecked ever since. California Air Resources Board officials say that every day the well vents enough gas to fill the Empire State Building.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and each month the leak in Aliso Canyon goes unchecked contributes the same amount to global warming as adding another 200,000 cars on the road for a year, CARB spokesman David Clegern said.

As emergency crews work around the clock to stop the leak, the state official in charge of well regulation has called the accident a very unusual event that would have been hard to predict.

Others say sloppy state oversight could lead to more such disasters.

“This field has over 90 more wells up here that are just as old as the well that’s leaking now,” says Walker Foley, an organizer with Food & Water Watch, an environmental group. "This field is a catastrophe waiting to happen.”

The gas itself is odorless, but it’s treated with mercaptans, sulfur-based odorants meant to raise an alarm when methane escapes.

According to Gillian Wright, SoCalGas vice president for customer services, some 20 sampling devices on and around the company’s property have failed to detect hydrocarbons, or even mercaptans, above regulatory thresholds.

But even though county health officials don’t expect the additives to cause any long-term illnesses, they often make people feel very ill when they’re exposed to them, said Cyrus Rangan, who heads the L.A. county health department’s Bureau of Toxicology and Environmental Assessment.

“[The] physiologic response is actual health symptoms that include nausea, headaches, dizziness, lightheadedness, some respiratory problems,” Rangan says. “So, they are real symptoms. They are happening every day for a lot of people, and they’re getting worse for a lot of people as well.”

PorterRanch
Porter Ranch residents and environmental activists from throughout the Los Angeles metropolitan area picketed recently outside the entrance to the Aliso Canyon Storage Facility, operated by SoCalGas. A huge natural gas leak there has gone unchecked for two months. (Chris Richard/KQED)

SoCalGas has paid to relocate about 2,100 families away from the putrid fumes, and there are another 550 or so on a waiting list.

L.A.’s city attorney has sued the company for allegedly creating a public nuisance, and on Tuesday he sought a restraining order that would compel the gas company to act more quickly to find temporary shelter for people affected by the leak. City Attorney Mike Feuer argues that nobody in that situation should have to wait more than 48 hours after requesting relocation assistance.

A law firm associated with environmental activist Erin Brockovich has been signing people up for individual lawsuits, and another firm has filed a class-action case. Los Angeles school district officials have closed two campuses and authorized a possible lawsuit.

Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander, who represents neighborhoods near the well, says he values the help his constituents have received, including investigations by a broad array of state agencies.

“I have a big question that’s been looming to me from the beginning of this,” Englander told the crowd at a forum organized by Brockovich’s legal team to recruit plaintiffs for litigation. “Where’s our governor? I don’t know why he hasn’t been here on site. He’s the only that can actually declare a state of emergency if that’s truly needed. He can bring in the outside resources and contact the feds. So yeah, Jerry Brown, wherever you are, come to Porter Ranch as quickly as possible. We need your help.”

Dan Bout, assistant director for response at Brown’s Office of Emergency Services, said the leak doesn’t fit the guidelines for an emergency declaration, because SoCalGas has been paying for temporary housing and other emergency needs and because the state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) already has the authority it needs.

Steve Bohlen, state oil and gas supervisor and the head of DOGGR, says his staff tells him this kind of leak actually was hard to see coming. He ordered SoCalGas to stop pumping into any storage reservoirs around the well, to reduce pressure on the leak.

“We believe we have some of the best advisers available, and we will work with the company to make sure they’re doing the right things that are both protecting public safety and getting the well closed as quickly as possible,” says Bohlen, who resigned on Nov. 30 but remains DOGGR's designated authority on the well leak.

Cornell University engineering professor Tony Ingraffea -- a former petrochemical industry insider and outspoken critic of industry practices -- says with California’s regulatory record, the Aliso Canyon leak should be no surprise.

“Routine is, ‘Well, we just didn’t get around to it. We don’t have enough manpower. We didn’t get the reports on time from the company. The company failed to fill out the reports adequately.’ ” Ingraffea says. “Now that process goes on and on and on, weeks, months, years. And then something like this happens, and routine becomes negligence.”

Public documents included with one of the lawsuits show a number of wells around the leak site that are missing pressure data. Bohlen says it’s not clear whether operators failed to report the data or regulators failed to record it.

Just weeks before the Porter Ranch leak was reported in October, DOGGR announced plans to reform shortcomings in the regional office, including outdated enforcement policies and sloppy record keeping.

Bohlen says there’s no indication yet that either state regulators or SoCalGas did anything wrong at the leak site, and he’s confident the division is correcting its past shortcomings.

“We have completely turned the division’s direction to being very proactive. We’re issuing many, many more orders, notices of violations and so forth,” he says.

Still, former oil and gas geologist Briana Mordick points out that the shaft of the well appears to be only partially reinforced with concrete. Mordick is now a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council and a critic of state regulation of injection wells like the one that is leaking now.

“Best practice would have more cement,” she says. “Certainly, you would want to make sure that any zones that contain fluid or things like that were shut off. One of the problems you can have in a situation where you don’t have cement is the casing could be corroding on the back side.”

A SoCalGas project manager replied to an interview request with an email saying the company won’t know what caused the leak until it has completed a thorough review. That won’t happen until after the leak is plugged, the email states.

Crews are working around the clock to tap into the well shaft, near where it meets a subterranean reservoir. Once they hit the shaft, they’ll inject heavy mud and fluids to choke the flow of gas.

Drilling could take another four months.

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