Climate

After At Least 2,300 Home Evacuations, Big Methane Leak Causes State Of Emergency

CREDIT: Dean Musgrove/Los Angeles Daily News via AP, Pool

Crews from SoCalGas and outside experts work on a relief well at the Aliso Canyon facility above the Porter Ranch area of Los Angeles, Wednesday, Dec. 9. 2015.

The Porter Ranch neighborhood of Los Angeles is officially in a state of emergency, according to a declaration by California Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday. The area has been suffering from the effects of a methane gas leak at the Aliso Canyon Storage Facility since late October. At least 2,300 homes have been evacuated, with many more requests pending.

Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas), which owns and operates the storage facility, has been constructing a relief well to stop the leak, which the company was unable to plug in the days and weeks immediately following the breach. The escaping methane has been treated with an odorant and is allegedly causing headaches, nausea, rashes, and other health problems among local residents. The company anticipates completing the relief well by March 15.

Brown, a Democrat, toured the area this week and met with homeowners, according to his office.

It is not immediately apparent what added benefits the declaration will have in the short term. The company says it is already working around the clock to install the relief well, and the governor’s office has mobilized seven different state agencies to provide expertise and support.

But the state of emergency does formalize the process — and the repercussions.

The declaration “focuses on ensuring accountability and strengthening oversight after the gas leak stops and reflects broad and detailed input from regulators, experts and the community,” a Brown spokesperson told ThinkProgress via email.

In other words, this is a step towards recognizing this leak as one of the very bad things that can happen in a natural gas system that it not adequately regulated or maintained. For one thing, it is not immediately apparent that the company violated any regulations — which is, in itself, a problem. The company has been criticized for failing to maintain its infrastructure, some of which, including the Aliso Canyon well, is more than half a century old.

Environmentalists were quick to respond to Brown’s declaration. The Environmental Defense Fund, which released a shocking infrared video of the leak in November, applauded the move.

“The steps Governor Brown outlines in his order recognize both the immediate need to stop the massive leak, but set in motion a longer term effort to protect people and the environment from methane leakage – it’s a great first step,” Mark Brownstein, vice president for climate and energy for the group, said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress.

Others, though, criticized the governor for failing to address California’s systemic natural gas infrastructure issues earlier, in effect saying the state of emergency was too little, too late.

“Gov. Brown’s slow response is especially disturbing because state regulators’ hands-off approach to underground injection helped set the stage for this catastrophe,” Maya Golden-Krasner, an L.A.-based attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “The state has known for years that aging natural gas infrastructure was a disaster waiting to happen, but officials mostly ignored those risks.”

The lack of regulation suggests it is unlikely that criminal charges will brought against SoCalGas, but the governor’s office said both the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources and the California Public Utilities Commission are investigating the leak.

There is already a pending class action suit against SoCalGas, which allegedly removed a safety valve in the well decades ago.