Porter Ranch Gas Leak Order: SoCalGas Ordered To Close Leak That Is Sickening Residents

A Porter Ranch gas leak order was handed down on Saturday by regulators requiring permanent closure of a leaking gas well northwest of Los Angeles, California. Exactly three months after the natural gas leak was discovered, Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) was finally ordered to take drastic and immediate action. The ongoing gas leak has already sickened thousands of residents in the upscale San Fernando Valley Porter Ranch neighborhood and is being called the largest methane gas leak since the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010.

Members of a South Coast Air Quality Management District independent Hearing Board sat down with the public on Saturday to decide what should be done to put an end to the nearly 44 tons of methane gas that leak out of the failed natural gas well per hour. Twelve miles away from the contaminated Porter Ranch region, the six-hour meeting between residents and the hearing board concluded with an abatement order that details how SoCalGas should reduce and eventually end use of the 61-year-old leaking gas well and figure out a better method for detecting gas leaks in the future, according to NBC News out of Southern California.

The Porter Ranch gas leak order outlines steps SoCalGas must take to control air pollution and odor from leaking methane gas, as well as completely stop the leak as soon as possible, something SoCalGas has been attempting to do unsuccessfully since November 2015. Executive Officer for the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) Barry Wallerstein said that Southern California Gas Company will also be required to thoroughly inspect all of the remaining 115 natural gas wells at their Aliso Canyon underground storage facility, which is located one mile north of Porter Ranch homes.

"SoCalGas must take immediate steps to minimize air pollution and odors from its leaking well and stop the leak as quickly as possible. It also will require the utility to thoroughly inspect all other wells at its Aliso Canyon storage facility to help prevent another major leak in the future."
A public information statement published on the SCAQMD website on Saturday lists the 10 provisions of the Porter Ranch gas leak order, including the complete shutdown and sealing of the leaking well and continuous monitoring of the well. SoCalGas must also fund a health study to assess any adverse health effects the leaking well has had on Porter Ranch residents and will continue to have on residents. Since SoCalGas discovered the leak on October 23, 2015, in well SS-25, Porter Ranch residents have reported an extraordinary number of nosebleeds, headaches, nausea, and eye, throat, and ear infections. Nearly 3,000 households out of the over 6,000 that have filed for help have been relocated by SoCalGas, mainly to temporary housing in nearby hotels and rental homes.

Many dream homes now sit empty in the affluent Porter Ranch neighborhood that once had a population of over 30,000. Over 11,000 people have evacuated as of the first part of 2016, with several more on their way out. At least two schools have also been relocated. Residents of Porter Ranch reported a sulfur-smelling odor in October 2015 and assumed a home just had a major natural gas leak. SoCalGas reportedly discovered the smell was actually coming from a massive well leak in their Aliso Canyon facility that same day but didn't admit to having a leak until five days later. A seven-inch breach more than 8,000 feet underground in the casing of well SS-25 has been emitting the greenhouse gas, methane, along with the carcinogen, benzene, for at least the last three months.

Traces of the cloud of methane gas hanging over Porter Ranch are visible on cars, outside furniture, and even inside furniture in the form of black specks. In December 2015, Los Angeles County had declared a state of emergency, with California Governor Jerry Brown officially declaring a state of emergency on January 6 after visiting Aliso Canyon and Porter Ranch. SoCalGas, owned by Sempra Energy, has tried to kill gas flow to the well six times over the last three months. The seventh effort actually destabilized the wellhead, increasing the chance for a blowout.

Steve Conley, an atmospheric scientist, says there's no rapid response plan for a giant leak like this. Los Angeles Councilman Mitchell Englander represents Porter Ranch and criticized SoCalGas for operating such a large facility with no backup plan. Aliso Canyon is the second largest storage facility in the United States for natural gas, serving 20 million addresses.

Over 100 residents gave their testimony to the Hearing Board before the Porter Ranch gas leak order was released on Saturday. Residents are disappointed with the order, saying SoCalGas should be ordered to shut down all of its wells on the Aliso Canyon site.

"There should be no other choice but to shut down the dangerous Aliso Canyon facility and look to close every urban oil and gas facility throughout California and our country, to ensure the health of our communities and our climate is never again sacrificed for corporate polluter profits," said Michael Brune with the Los Angeles Sierra Club.

Local health officials have said long-term exposure to methane and benzene could result in future health problems for Porter Ranch residents.

"It's turned our lives upside down," according to Christine Katz who evacuated Porter Ranch to a hotel room with her husband and five children.
"We try to be strong but it has devastated us. We're science experiments. I don't think the public is being told the truth."
[Photo via Wikimedia Commons/Scott L./CC BY-SA 2.0]