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Sat Jul 02 11:32:56 CAT 2016

Emergency declared in California over October methane leak

IAN LOVETT | 07 January, 2016 15:51
Porter Ranch resident Alex Kim (L) and supporter Richard Mathews (R) talk outside Los Angeles City Hall during a demonstration before testimony before the Los Angeles City Council on the ongoing natural gas leak in the Porter Ranch area of Los Angeles, California.
Image by: GUS RUELAS / REUTERS

Natural gas has been spewing into the air in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Porter Ranch since late October, sickening residents, prompting thousands to evacuate their homes and pouring greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

Gov. Jerry Brown, faced with mounting public anger and no end in sight to the leak, declared a state of emergency on Wednesday for the neighborhood of about 30,000 at the edge of the San Fernando Valley.

And residents — who have been demanding to know why the Southern California Gas Co. cannot fix the leak to its natural gas storage well, and whether the company will compensate them for their lost property values and health problems — want to know why it has taken so long.

“This is the equivalent of the BP oil spill, except it’s on land, in a populated community,” said Mitchell Englander, the Los Angeles city councilman who represents Porter Ranch. “This is one of the most disruptive, catastrophic environmental events that I’ve seen. It’s a truly chaotic crisis.” 

Already, more than 2,000 families have left this affluent suburb because of the terrible smell and its side effects, which include nosebleeds, headaches, dizziness and vomiting. Health officials have been testing the air quality in the area and insist there are no long-term health risks, though short-term effects like the ones residents have cited are common, and result not from the gas itself but rather from chemicals put into the gas so people can smell it.

So while the long-term effects of the leak may not amount to much, the near-term ones have been very disruptive. The Federal Aviation Administration has ordered a no-fly zone over Porter Ranch for safety reasons. Erin Brockovich, the environmental activist who successfully took the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to task over groundwater contamination, has held a community meeting for Porter Ranch residents.

The leak, buried deep in the ground at a giant gas field that stores energy for distribution around southern California, now accounts for 25 percent of the methane emitted in California each day. Methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. 

In declaring the state of emergency, Brown said that he acted in response to the “prolonged and continuing” nature of the leak, which was detected on Oct. 23. To those whose lives have been upended by the leak, however, the situation has long qualified as a disaster, and the governor’s delay has been one of many sources of frustration. 

Sharon Mousavi-Dormani is among those who have moved away temporarily, along with her dog and two children, after choking on the fumes for more than a month and suffering from headaches, sore throats and nosebleeds. Even the dog was getting diarrhea, she said.

With hotels in the area full over the holidays, family members found themselves at a hotel in Pasadena, about 30 miles away, unsure where they would end up or what schools the children would attend, given that the ones in Porter Ranch have closed because of the problem. 

“It’s like a fog in your brain — it feels like you’re having a stroke,” Mousavi-Dormani said of how she feels every time she goes back to her home, as she did recently to help prepare for the heavy rainstorms that fell in the region last weekend as a consequence of El Niño. “Every time I go back, I get sicker and sicker.”

Others who have stayed have taken to wearing surgical masks when they garden to keep out the rotten-egg smell and the oily mist that sometimes leaves brown residue on their cars. In some gated communities near the gas field, half the homes now sit empty, prompting fears of burglaries. Temporary signs dot the street urging residents to report suspicious activities.

“The neighborhood was a safe place to have your kids grow up,” said Amber Visage, 27, explaining why she originally moved to Porter Ranch with her daughter, now 6. She has relocated to a hotel and is worried about the value of her home, along with her family’s health. “Who would want to move here now?” she asked.

The Southern California Gas Co., a division of Sempra Energy of San Diego, has been subsidizing those residents who want to move and installing air filtration for those who choose to stay. Officials from the company declined to say how much has been spent addressing the leak or how they plan to address the lawsuits that will likely haunt them for years. So far, at least two law firms representing residents have filed suit against the company, as has the Los Angeles city attorney.

Shares of Sempra have fallen 8.6 percent since the leak was discovered in October. Brown’s sister, Kathleen L. Brown, is a Sempra Energy board member.

Company officials insisted they were doing everything possible to plug the leak quickly, adding that leading engineers from around the country had been brought in to assist. A relief well under construction to fix the problem will have to reach more than 8,000 feet underground so that engineers can inject additional liquids and then permanently cap the leaking well with cement, company officials said.

“We’re working literally 24 hours a day,” said Dennis Arriola, the president of Southern California Gas Co. “People get frustrated if they don’t understand the principles, but we’re going on schedule.”

He added that experts had “never seen anything like this.”

Unlike some other wells, the leaking well did not have an sub-surface safety valve.

Though not required by state regulators, such a valve could have stopped the leak quickly, and calls for reform have followed. 

In his emergency declaration, Brown said he was ordering an investigation into the cause of the leak, as well as stepping up regulations for all gas storage facilities in the state.

--(c) 2016 New York Times News Service

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