A woman walks to her home in Porter Ranch, Calif., last month, after state regulatory officials announced that SoCalGas Co.'s leaking well had finally been plugged. (Mel Melcon/L.A. Times via Getty Images)
Kavita Ramchandani loved everything about evenings in her backyard: how the full moon lit up the sky, the way the breeze seemed to talk to her, the smell of the pine trees. She bought the single-story hillside house in this upscale Los Angeles County suburb after emigrating from India, and from the first night it felt like home.
Then last fall, gas started leaking from a well at a nearby storage facility, and Ramchandani, 53, began wheezing, getting nose bleeds and persistent headaches. She left her home in January.
Now, she says, the house just feels foreign. And scary.
Gabriel Khanlian, a 39-year old Porter Ranch resident, said he, too, became really worried after his 2-year-old daughter got a body rash and his sons, 5 and 8, had several bloody noses, stomachaches and burning eyes.
He started feeling horrible too — with nausea and body aches. “It felt like someone was hammering my head,” Khanlian said.
The Southern California Gas Company announced Feb. 18 that after nearly four months, it had permanently sealed the leaking well, and residents who had evacuated their homes could safely return.
The gas company, which had been picking up the tab for evacuees staying in hotels and motels, said it would pay for one additional week. But a Superior Court judge ordered the gas company on March 2 to continue paying for the temporary accommodations until March 18, allowing time for more air testing. The company said it has paid about $36 million in relocation expenses for about 3,400 households.
Ramchandani said she can’t afford to pay for the hotel once the gas company stops footing the bill, but she fears returning to Porter Ranch. “I’m worried about my health,” she said. “What if the breathlessness continues? What will I do then?”
The massive and unprecedented leak at the Aliso Canyon storage facility prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency in early January. Criminal charges and civil lawsuits against the gas company followed. Community leaders and politicians demanded more regulation of the aging facilities.
Legislators in Sacramento have jumped into the fray, proposing a bill to require more testing before the company can restart operations.
The leak has fueled concerns about the long-term health of residents exposed to methane, benzene and other chemicals. As part of his emergency declaration, Brown pledged to convene an independent panel of medical and scientific experts to review potential health risks.
Some residents have reported symptoms such as coughing, dizziness, stomachaches and nausea, according to the Los Angeles County Public Health Department. Department officials have said the symptoms should stop now that the well has been sealed.
But Ramchandani and others are worried that their health problems will continue — or worsen — when they go home. They fear what could happen in the future because of their recent exposure to the gas and chemicals.
Health officials maintain that the risk of long-term health problems is small. They say the main component in the emissions from the facility was methane, an odorless gas that doesn’t generally cause health problems when inhaled. The storage facility also released mercaptans, pungent smelling gases that are added to make a leak easy to detect.
The leaking gas also contained benzene — a carcinogen — and other related chemicals. But health officials said benzene levels during the leak were no greater in Porter Ranch than in other areas of Los Angeles County.
“We already have bad air in Los Angeles,” said Cyrus Rangan, who directs the toxicology and environmental assessment bureau for the L.A. County Department of Public Health. “You’d never say our air is the best in the world overall. But at least we can say we are not looking at levels that are far and above what you would normally breathe here.”
The state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment also evaluated air samples collected by the gas company between November and January and determined that none of the potentially harmful compounds in the leaked emissions were at high enough concentrations to pose serious health problems. Any increase in cancer risk to people in Porter Ranch is therefore very small, the office concluded.
Rangan said the vast majority of the symptoms are due to the odorants, which can irritate the eyes, skin and respiratory system. He said the emissions are not associated with lasting health problems.
Not everyone is convinced. Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman, who lives in Porter Ranch, said he’s concerned that the level of benzene was above standards on at least several days.
“I would guess that this not going to turn out to be as significant as Flint, Michigan, but that is a guess from somebody who didn’t go to medical school,” Sherman said. “It’s not enough to plug the well. You’ve got to make sure that the air is pure.”
The public health department and the South Coast Air Quality Management District are continuing to monitor the air. Residents are also being asked to report ongoing odors.
This week, the gas company also began assessing homes where residents have reported brown spots that might be residue from the leak.
Gas company officials said the residue is not likely to be in many residential air ducts, which are sealed in most homes so outside air does not enter. In the “very few systems” that do take in some air from the outside, filters should stop particles from circulating in the home, the company said.
Mike Danko, an attorney representing Porter Ranch residents in one of the civil lawsuits, said he believes the gas company has understated the impact without strong data. Only time will tell how the leak ultimately affects the residents’ health, he said.
“There is no question that the bloody noses, the nausea, the skin irritation is going to pass with time,” Danko said. “The people now have to live under a cloud of what is going to happen 10, 20, 30 years down the road. No one should have to live with that.”
Dr. Jeffrey Nordella, medical director at Porter Ranch Quality Care, which provides both primary and urgent care, said he immediately saw an uptick in patients with common symptoms last fall.
Nordella said he has been screening patients with blood work, chest x-rays and lung function tests. One morning in late February, Ramchandani came in for a follow-up visit. The Bollywood singer told him she didn’t have a history of breathing problems but that her wheezing had been so bad she had to turn down work.
Pulling up her test results, Nordella informed her she had limited lung function. He prescribed an inhaler and suggested a visit to a pulmonologist.
Ramchandani is anxious about what is to come. “Constantly at the back of mind, I am thinking, ‘What if I get cancer?’” she said.
“That’s why we need to keep following you,” Nordella told her.
In a shopping center across the street sit two storefronts set up by the gas company, where residents can request air purifiers and weather stripping. They can also file reimbursement claims and ask a toxicologist questions.
Jacki Swift, 53, said she has gone to the center several times to ask for help. After the leak started, she and her family packed up their dog, their clothes and their grandson’s toys and relocated to a rented home in Chatsworth.
Sitting on a rented couch in the living room one day last month, Swift said she believed the new house wasn’t far enough away from Porter Ranch. Her headaches have continued, and her daughter continues to get bright red, itchy rashes all over her body, she said.
“It’s really scary,” Swift said. “I feel like we are guinea pigs.”
Every time they go to Porter Ranch to get the mail or check on their house, the symptoms get worse, she said.
Swift said she wonders if the gas company knows more than they are saying about the chemicals. “I think they are choosing their words carefully to diminish our fears, to make us feel safe,” she said. “But I don’t feel safe. I want to know if there are toxins in my home.”
Swift wants to move out of the area but knows that could be difficult because, “who is going to buy a house in Porter Ranch?”
Khanlian, on the other hand, said he just wants to move back home. He has lived in Porter Ranch for nearly 15 years and owns two homes in the area. He is the secretary of his homeowners’ association and part of a community group called “Save Porter Ranch,” which opposes oil and gas drilling and pre-dates the recent leak.
The doctors told Khanlian they didn’t know what was causing his family’s symptoms, which he said had begun before the gas company announced the leak. But Khanlian suspected it had something to do with an unbearable smell of gas outside. He told his children they couldn’t ride their bikes or go in the swimming pool.
Then the gas company announced the leak, and Khanlian and his family relocated to Reseda. As the smell subsided, the family moved back in briefly, but left again after Khanlian’s wife, Aleeza, started suffering a recurrence of nausea and headaches. Khanlian wants the gas company to test the soil, water and air.
From his front door in Porter Ranch, he can look up at the hill where the once-leaking well sits. He said he expects more problems in the future. “The whole facility is so outdated,” he said. “How do we know we aren’t going to have another gas leak?”
Meanwhile, Khanlian said, he is closely monitoring his family’s symptoms and hoping the officials are right that the health effects of the gas leak will be short-lived.
This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.