'Mini-Chernobyl' Gas Leak Persists In Porter Ranch After Contentious Hearing

Justin Streight

For three months, residents in Porter Ranch, California, have been enduring a massive methane gas leak, which one official referred to as a "mini-Chernobyl." Despite the health risks and environmental damage, authorities seem prepared to drag the problem out further after a hearing on Saturday. Still, they might have good reason – the current solution on the table could trigger a catastrophic explosion.

Residents had expected the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) to sign off on a plan to cut the emissions spewing from the gas leak by about 50 percent. The problem, according to AQMD deputy executive officer Mohsen Nazemi, is it needs to be approved by the local fire officials and state and federal regulators, because there is a risk of an explosion.

If the capture and burn plan is ever given the green light, it would take about 20 million cubic feet of natural gas out of the air every day, which represents about half of the leak.

Despite the dangers, many Porter Ranch residents left the hearing dissatisfied, adding to the frustration after many say the state authorities and SoCal Gas, the company in charge of the well, were slow to respond to the problem.

Mike Antonovich, the LA County supervisor, didn't hold back when describing the urgency of the situation.

"This is a mini-Chernobyl."

The leak has ramifications for the planet, with methane trapping 80 times as much heat as carbon dioxide.

But a more immediate concern is the health risk for the local population. Benzene, a chemical compound known to cause blood cancers, is leaking as well. SoCal Gas officials say there is no threat, but health investigators are not so sure.

There is not enough data to make a conclusive statement either way, but Michael Jerrett, chair of UCLA's environmental health sciences department, said there are some troubling signs.

"For about the first three weeks of November there were levels of benzene being sampled in the community that were considerably higher than expected in the LA basin, and were likely to be higher than the government exposure level for eight-hour exposure."

Seth Shonkoff, director of the PSE Healthy Energy thinktank, says that for those odors, the data being collected is also insufficient, explaining that the human nose is capable of smelling mercaptans, the foul-smelling chemicals causing nausea, at 0.1 parts per billion, far more sensitive than the monitoring equipment.

"Everyone can smell it. The people who are sensitive to it are getting sick. But if they are monitoring with equipment that has a limit of 5 parts per billion it will show up as a non-detect. It is clear that data is not being collected in a manner that is necessary to determine the extent to which there may be public health concerns."

SoCal Gas's lawyers insist that they would fight any effort to close more wells, saying there is no evidence they pose a health risk or have leaks of their own.

Many insist they have smelled the fumes for years now and worry if the problem is more than just one "mini-Chernobyl" gas leak in Porter Ranch.

Officials don't expect a permanent solution - a relief well that's being drilled - to be finished until February or March.

[Photo by David McNew/Getty Images]