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The Scariest Part Of California’s Gas Leak Wasn’t Rashes And Bloody Noses. It’s What Happens Next.

Porter Ranch residents are angry — but the bogeyman they are fighting is bigger than all of us. CREDIT: SAMANTHA PAGE/DYLAN PETROHILOS, THINKPROGRESS
Porter Ranch residents are angry — but the bogeyman they are fighting is bigger than all of us. CREDIT: SAMANTHA PAGE/DYLAN PETROHILOS, THINKPROGRESS

Tatiana Khanlian is 2 years old. Over four months this winter, she had rashes along her arms, spontaneous bloody noses, mood swings, and a decreased appetite, her father says. Tatiana’s older brothers, ages 5 and 8, are old enough to know they couldn’t go outside, but not old enough to understand why.

“Imagine keeping kids away from playing outside,” their father, Gabriel, said.

It started in October. A pungent, sulfury smell, not unlike rotten eggs, hung over the neighborhood. By January, even when just whiffs of the stuff were floating through the neighborhood, it was still enough to cause headaches and watery eyes in newcomers. People who had been exposed for months were even more sensitive.

This is Porter Ranch, California, where the Khanlians are just one of the thousands of families that were evacuated from their home after a rupture in a massive natural gas storage reservoir launched the nation’s largest methane leak. The gas, treated with an odorant called mercaptan, is blamed for a wide range of health effects on residents in the Porter Ranch neighborhood of Los Angeles. In all, about a third of Porter Ranch’s families temporarily relocated.

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Experts say health impacts are only temporary. According to the CDC, exposure to mercaptan can cause short-term headaches, nausea, weakness, fatigue, incoordination, and irritation of mucous membranes, but doesn’t report any known long-term effects.

But the scariest part might not be the headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing, and irritated eyes. It’s that these illnesses are signs that the system failed to protect this small neighborhood in Los Angeles. In a state that uses 2.34 trillion cubic feet of natural gas every year, the system is everywhere — and nowhere more so than Porter Ranch.

Underneath 3,900 acres of hilly terrain overlooking the neighborhood is an almost unimaginable amount of natural gas. Originally an oil drilling site, the 115 converted wells that make up the Aliso Canyon Storage Facility can hold more than 85 billion cubic feet of natural gas. Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas), which owns the facility, says the gas is used by the company’s 21 million customers in Southern California. It is piped directly to homes for heating and gas ranges, and it is sold to power plants for electricity. And according to the gas company, it is entirely necessary.

“Without Aliso Canyon, there might not be enough gas to supply customers during peak needs,” company representative Glenn LaFevers said during a public meeting in January. Then this week, officials warned that Southern California might face blackouts this summer due to the “significant risk” of natural gas shortages.

The facility is something of a clearinghouse for natural gas, some experts say — although data is notoriously difficult to attain, even for the state legislature’s oversight committee. It’s possible that all the natural gas used in Southern California goes through this one facility, officials have been told.

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Lack of information is a theme here. Hardly any residents knew what the land was used for before the leak started. And they are hardly alone. Most of us don’t think about what generates the electricity that powers our computers and light bulbs, but hidden under mountains, beside schools, and beneath roads throughout the country is a vast network of natural gas storage and pipelines. The gas is stored in old oil wells and in aquifers, underground vacuums trapped in bedrock and invisible from above, save for a few nondescript metal well tops, hidden behind fences.

Last year, natural gas-fired power plants made up nearly a third of new generation. The year before that, they were more than 40 percent of new capacity. Natural gas has been booming in the United States, especially in California. Fracking has attracted a lot of attention, but where the gas goes may be just as important — as the country transitions away from coal, gas is moving in to supplement renewable resources that don’t generate power on demand.

While Aliso Canyon is the largest natural gas storage facility west of the Mississippi, there are roughly 400 others like it in the United States.

That’s a lot of gas to keep track of. And while natural gas might be considered a clean fuel — it releases a little more than half as much carbon dioxide when burned as coal does — when it leaks, it’s a different story. Methane, the compound that makes up 80 percent of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas. Over a 20-year period, it traps about 86 times as much heat as carbon dioxide does. So while the Porter Ranch residents are worrying about long-term, and largely unknown, health effects from exposure to natural gas, the rest of the world is worried about a different long-term problem: We just watched SoCalGas spew the equivalent emissions of two coal-fired power plants for an entire year — in just 114 days. That’s roughly 2 percent of the entire state’s annual emissions and represents the largest methane leak in U.S. history.

SoCalGas, though, has said that its maintenance of the wells at Aliso Canyon didn’t actually violate any standards of upkeep. It doesn’t matter, for instance, that a safety valve on the failed well was removed in the 70s and never replaced, because there is no legal requirement for an emergency safety valve.

That’s hardly an excuse, says Patricia Oliver, a lawyer with the R. Rex Parris firm, which is representing residents in a class action case against SoCalGas.

The law requires that you take all actions necessary to protect the community from dangerous conditions

“The law requires that you take all actions necessary to protect the community from dangerous conditions,” Oliver said. “You cannot say, ‘Well, you don’t have a specific requirement.’”

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Oliver alleges that SoCalGas was, in fact, operating its wells illegally. “They were injecting at a pressure that would fracture the rock. You’re not allowed to do that in California,” she told ThinkProgress.

But proving that SoCalGas knowingly — or even negligently — put the community at risk is going to take years, if it can be done at all, legal experts say. If the gas company gets its way, California might only see new laws — more complicated requirements for wells and new safety standards for a system already unprepared to monitor natural gas.

Beyond the gate, billions of cubic feet of natural gas are stored underground. Until recently, most Porter Ranch residents had no idea what was under that hill. CREDIT: Samantha Page/ThinkProgress
Beyond the gate, billions of cubic feet of natural gas are stored underground. Until recently, most Porter Ranch residents had no idea what was under that hill. CREDIT: Samantha Page/ThinkProgress

There were hundreds of natural gas storage and transportation violations found last year by the California Public Utilities Commission. While the Aliso Canyon leak might be the most egregious, it’s the natural conclusion to a system lacking clear oversight, regulation, and reporting. Earlier this month, the state issued a $75,000 fine to a different operator at the Aliso Canyon site that had illegally, intentionally vented gas in January. The violation was found during an infrared inspection by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD).

Amazingly, even under the heightened surveillance during the SoCalGas leak, another gas well operator, the Termo Company, had gone ahead and detached a pipeline. The effort was “brazen,” authorities said.

“If it wasn’t for the aerial surveillance, the illegal discharge could have continued indefinitely,” DOGGR supervisor Ken Harris said in a statement. “Someone clearly made an effort to conceal the pipe, because even though we knew from aerial readings where it was generally, our field staff had to search carefully before finding it behind a tree.”

So how often might this be happening?

Jennifer Milbauer, who leaves three miles from the leak, told ThinkProgress that she has called the SoCalGas a few times over the past five years — each time being told the smell was from “routine maintenance.” In October, when she called, complaining of burning eyes, blurry vision, headaches, and dizziness, she was told, “No no, it’s just an annoying smell. It will go away.”

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The Porter Ranch neighborhood dates back to the 1970s. Mostly made up of gated communities with Italianate names like The Renaissance, the community backs up against the Santa Susana Mountains, along the northern side of the San Fernando Valley, about 20 miles due north of Santa Monica. The schools here are good; the houses are expensive. The average income is $128,000 a year, according to data collected by the Los Angeles Times.

At the west end of the development, the new Porter Ranch Community School overlooks an expansive construction site. A new “luxury community of gated villages” is going in. Houses there start at $930,000. “Porter Ranch: LA’s New Prestige Address,” the website says.

“‘Porter Ranch’ will never mean the same thing,” Rep. Brad Sherman, a fellow Porter Ranch resident, told the community.

For the first days and weeks after the leak began, when people couldn’t breathe outside, officials all referred complaints back to SoCalGas, the very company that caused the disaster, residents say.

Gabriel Khanlian was told the same thing. “SoCalGas pretty much said, ‘There is nothing there. It is normal. [There] is nothing to worry about,’” he told ThinkProgress.

They were wrong. Then early estimates of “days” turned into months, as the company realized it would have to drill an entirely new well to stop the gas.

By the time the leak was stopped, just before Valentine’s Day, a half dozen state agencies had gotten involved. The city council, the county Board of Supervisors, the state attorney general, and the legislature were all asking how this could happen — and who was in charge of making it stop.

“Clearly, the current system is not working,” Assemblyman Mike Gatto, chair of the utilities and commerce committee, told ThinkProgress. During his investigation into the natural gas problem, Gatto has found utilities sometimes submit required reports documenting corrosion, but no one from the state agencies follows up.

Clearly, the current system is not working

This is partly a factor of how oversight is designed. The Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermic Resources (DOGGR) oversees wells. The Public Utility Commission (PUC) is responsible for making sure the lights stay on and for safety regulations. The AQMD monitors air pollution. It’s not always clear who has jurisdiction.

In January, the South Coast AQMD board jumped in. Residents and environmental groups were clamoring for the board to order SoCalGas to shut down operations entirely. After three hearings and hundreds of comments, the AQMD instead directed the SoCalGas to “withdraw the maximum amount of gas from [the facility], while maintaining a sufficient supply of natural gas to serve the customers” and to permanently shut down the leaking well.

But, perhaps obviously, if the company had been able to shut the well down, they would have — and it’s unclear what authority AQMD even has over a system that is also overseen by other state agencies. Three days later, AQMD turned to something it can regulate and sued SoCalGas for negligence that harmed the region’s air. The suit seeks up to $250,000 in civil penalties for each day the local air was affected.

“The more I learn [about the leak] the more worried I become. The only conclusion I have drawn so far is that the entire system has failed. It has completely failed the public,” Gatto said.

Since then, the AQMD has faced problems of its own. In March, the board fired its executive director on the same day it voted to weaken restrictions on major polluters. The two actions have been criticized as politically motivated, since the ousted executive director, a Democrat, was seen as tough on the oil and gas industry. At least one board member suggested his dismissal was tied to the handling of the Aliso Canyon leak.

The public — at least in Porter Ranch — would agree. And they have someone in mind to blame.

Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Jerry Brown has got to go!

Outside public meetings, protesters have chanted, “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Jerry Brown has got to go!” and held pictures of the governor aloft. Gov. Brown has been praised for his big talk on climate change, but critics point to his close relationship with the oil and gas industry and a perceived failure for California to make significant emissions reductions under his watch.

Gabriel Khanlian, left, listens to Councilman Mitch Englander outside an AQMD hearing in January. CREDIT: Samantha Page/ThinkProgress
Gabriel Khanlian, left, listens to Councilman Mitch Englander outside an AQMD hearing in January. CREDIT: Samantha Page/ThinkProgress

Brown’s sister is also a board member for Sempra Energy, SoCalGas’ parent company, which many residents think played a role in what they saw as the governor’s lackluster response to the disaster.

There is also the question of whether mercaptan is the only additive that came out of Aliso Canyon. Air quality tests found a range of chemicals — including volatile organic chemicals, indicators of benzene — near the site and at the Porter Ranch Elementary School, which was closed for the semester.

There are a lot of people talking about what SoCalGas should do with Aliso Canyon. They should put in a solar farm. They should install wind turbines. They should use this opportunity to transition the grid to clean energy, people say. Residents want every house to get a free solar system, so they can help be part of the solution.

But these ideas get back to the fact that Aliso Canyon represents a systemic issue.

“I personally support the move away from carbon-based fuels and towards things that are better for the environment and are safe,” Gatto said, but he pointed out that, right now, California doesn’t have the infrastructure to get all its electricity from wind and solar.

“The problem with our situation in California, at least, is precisely how great our transition has been: Natural gas has actually gone up,” he said.

Here we have a community that has unquestionably been hurt by our collective dependence on fossil fuels and our collective failure to adequately keep watch. But where we go from here — both for residents and for the system — remains to be seen.

“If they are not going to close it down, anyone who does not want to live there should get the full value of their property to move out,” Oliver said. “They should not have to live next to that facility, given the condition of its operations.”

Then again, blackouts in Southern California summers — where the temperatures regularly hit 100 degrees in the Valley — are not exactly safe, either. In the modern world, we need electricity to maintain public safety, including everything from street lights to air conditioning to medical equipment. In 2003, a massive blackout in the Northeast caused 11 deaths and cost $10 billion to the economy. No one is suggesting taking Aliso Canyon offline will trigger anything close to that, but officials and regulators are understandably skittish about anything that could make the grid less reliable.

For the time being, though, the facility is pretty much closed for business. No new injections will be allowed until all 113 other wells pass individual safety tests. Any that don’t pass within a year must be permanently sealed.

“To the extent that there are some positive developments that can come out of this, that’s a good thing,” Gatto noted.

He also wants to see residents compensated in a timely manner. “I, for one, feel pretty comfortable that between the different prosecutors, justice will be served.”

That might be a high bar. Residents have already taken a big hit on property values — and who is going to move to Porter Ranch, knowing the Western United States’ largest gas reservoir is ill-maintained, aging, and poisonous?

People who fled their neighborhood this winter are still in the process of getting reimbursed for the hotels and short-term rentals. In the last week of March, SoCalGas sent 4,900 checks out, more than $6 million worth. But what do you do for people whose tenants stopped paying rent over the winter? For people who work from home?

The community has requested that the facility be entirely shut down and drained of natural gas, but the California Public Utilities Commission has seemingly sided with the gas company, ordering it to leave 15 billion cubic feet of usable gas in Aliso Canyon — and now publicly worrying that even that won’t be enough. SoCalGas announced this week that it expects to partially restore operations by the end of the summer.

“We have gotten the runaround from the gas company, from the Public Utilities Commission,” Milbauer said.

“Who is going to want to buy my house?” she asked. “The fact that [the wells] are so old made this an inevitable disaster. It’s bound to happen again, sooner rather than later.”