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It’s been a little more than three months since natural gas began leaking in Porter Ranch. The glaring lack of information disseminated to residents, nearby communities and the Los Angeles Basin, in general, has led to uncertainty about everyone’s long-term health.

So far, some 2,600 families have temporarily fled their homes because of the toxic, sickening fumes from the Aliso Canyon storage facility in the Santa Susana Mountains which have inundated a considerable portion of the northwest San Fernando Valley and is slowly wafting its way 56 miles toward Lancaster and Palmdale. Residents in northern Los Angeles County have expressed concerns about what this poisonous cloud of gas is doing to them, their children, pets and the environment. They want to know about the prolonged exposure to methane and what other chemicals—some of which are known carcinogens—eminating from the leak are doing not only to their bodies but those of the unborn.

‘Shut it down! … Shut it down!’

Los Angeles County health officials have cautioned that levels of chemicals tracked to date in Porter Ranch are not believed to be associated with health problems, but some independent experts say that benzene—a highly carcinogenic chemical compound in natural gas—could prove harmful over long periods of time. Southern California Gas Co. has 115 wells at its Aliso Canyon facility; the one leaking is about 40 years old and won’t be plugged until late February. Meanwhile, a continuous cloud of gas is hovering over the region and more people each day are complaining of nausea, headaches, vomiting and other issues associated with breathing mercaptan, a sulfur-like odor that smells like rotten eggs which is mixed with natural gas. You can’t smell natural gas, that’s why this ingredient is added so that leaks can be quickly be detected.

Shouts of “Shut it down! … Shut it down!” have made national headlines since last fall. A host of lawyers have come onboard, including the R. Rex Parris Law firm in Lancaster, to represent displaced residents who have not been able to return home, and, once they do, may find that their entire property inside and out is contaminated. The Parris firm, and a number of regulatory agencies, are pointing the finger at Southern California Gas Co. and its owner Sempra Energy.

Local law firm takes case

The Parris firm issued a statement: “No one has yet quantified the impact of this gas leak on the community with respect to the transfer of this gas through the underground water. SoCalGas has likewise not explained who is assisting to prevent contamination of the water impacted by this massive well failure for the agencies and individuals who may use this water. The families of Porter Ranch suffered and continue to suffer both physical and financial injuries including exposure to dangerous levels of noxious odors, hazardous gases, chemicals, pollutant and water by SoCalGas.”

This week, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) said the utility’s negligence extended to the design, construction, operation and inspection of one of the wells, according to a civil complaint filed in Los Angeles Superior Court. The lawsuit alleges the gas company has violated air quality regulations and state law for each day that the well leaks. There is also a complaint filed that faults the utility for a “sluggish response” to what has become an environmental disaster and public health threat. The suit seeks up to $250,000 in civil penalties for each day that a specific violation has occurred.

A SoCalGas spokesperson said the company does not comment on pending litigation. This latest lawsuit comes days after the SCAQMD approved a comprehensive abatement order that requires the gas company to permanently shut down the damaged well, establish a leak detection system, and conduct an independent health study.

Testing for long-term health problems

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (DPH) has expanded air monitoring in and around Porter Ranch in an effort to better examine chemical compound levels and the risk of long-term health problems. The department is testing twice daily at 12- to 24-hour intervals and is looking more closely into the release of unknown carcinogens. So far, results from more than 1,000 tests have shown no significant evidence of high levels of toxins, but the amount of benzene detected in each test far exceed the California standard. The DPH late last year suggested more long-term monitoring, but the department has no regulatory jurisdiction over the wells and has to rely on Southern California Gas Co. to conduct the tests, and then wait for the SCAQMD to return the results.

DPH officials caution that, so far, the levels of benzene do not pose a health threat.

“We find that nearly all of the measured benzene concentrations in the Porter Ranch community are below the levels where adverse health effects are expected to occur,” said Angelo Bellomo, deputy director for health protection with the DPH. “Benzene levels are generally in the range of those found throughout the Los Angeles region. We will continue expanding the air-monitoring effort to fully evaluate the risk, and as new data is generated we will continue to reassess the latest conditions.”

SoCalGas slow with information

Not everyone is convinced that the contaminants pose no immediate nor long-term health risks. Peter Richman, president of the Los Angeles County Medical Association, said the lack of information about prolonged exposure to methane is a troubling factor for residents and healthcare professionals. Elevated levels of both methane and benzene, he cautioned, might prove harmful over time.

“Physicians know there is an ongoing gas leak, that there are potential contaminates, but at what levels?,” Richman asked. “We still don’t know if that could be a health concern.” He said physicians need daily updates and need to know exactly what contaminants exist, at what levels they’re being reported and what those levels mean.

“Most physicians may not know the side effects or harm of particular contaminants,” Richman explained, “so once we know that, we can begin to address the potential immediate and long-term harm.”

Of the 2,600 households that have relocated out of Porter Ranch, it is estimated that 40 percent have pets—mostly cats and dogs—according to Gas Company spokeswoman Anne Silva. She said the Gas Company is not keeping data on how many customers say their pets have become ill or have died because of the gas leak. Some veterinary experts suggest pet owners should reserve judgment, because merely smelling gas may not mean that there is enough released into the atmosphere to cause immediate sickness.

Prior warning of ‘major failures’

“Even though you smell it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s at a high enough level to cause distress,” said Robert Poppenga, a professor of veterinary toxicology at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Veterinarians, he said, still have a difficult time determining just how toxic the gas fumes are on small pets and livestock.

Long before the leak erupted, industry groups were raising alarms about the danger of the aging underground storage infrastructure. The Gas Company in 2014 warned state regulators “major failures” may be imminent and that a series of rate hikes would be necessary to cover comprehensive inspections of its 229 storage wells, 26 of which were considered “high risk” and should be abandoned. In 2013, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) pointed to an absence of safety standards for storage wells as a reason to launch its own monitoring program. Some Californians remember a catastrophic 2010 explosion of a PG&E gas line in San Bruno that killed eight people.

Under state oil and gas regulations, the Gas Company faces a maximum penalty of $25,000 for the Porter Ranch leak. The fine is not enough, according to State Sen. Fran Pavley (D-27) who recommended recently fines of up to $25,000 per day for active leaks. She called for the installation of automatic shutoff systems on all wells and continuous monitoring of wells within 10,000 feet of homes and schools.

“Utilities and regulators have been ‘gambling’ with wells that in many cases were drilled in the 1950s,” Pavley said. “It’s as though these companies follow an attitude of ‘don’t fix it until it leaks or cracks or breaks.’”

Leak may be largest in U.S. history

Tim O’Connor, director of California oil and gas programs for the Environmental Defense Fund, pointed to a 60-page set of guidelines released by the American Petroleum Institute about one month before the breech that recommended federal regulation for monitoring and maintenance of storage wells. “Up and down,” O’Connor said, “the general consensus is that the regulations that exist in California are wholly insufficient.”

California’s oil and gas regulator—the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources—has acknowledged problems with oversight but said it has made an increased effort to police itself and began updating regulations before the leak began. Earlier this month, Gov. Jerry Brown ordered the agency to issue emergency safety regulations for underground gas storage.

Today’s trend toward a more “green” environment is being challenged by the gas leak. It is estimated that the leak has released the equivalent of 2.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide since it was reported in October. Scientists at UC Davis say that figure amounts to more greenhouse gas than 44,000 cars emit in one year. One of the scientists, Stephen Conley, flew over Porter Ranch late last year and detected methane levels as high as 50 parts per million. He said he had to double check his instruments, after that measurement.

“This is probably 20 times bigger than anything else we’ve measured,” Conley said, adding that so much methane has been released in three months that it’s expected to boost global warming and will likely remain in the atmosphere long after the leak is plugged. He also explained that the longer the leak remains open, the more difficult it will be for the state to reach its goal of reducing emissions of methane and other pollutants by the 40-percent minimum mark set for 2030.

How much gas has escaped? A spokesperson for Southern California Gas Co. told the media earlier this month that the reservoir has gone from being 90 percent full to about 37 percent of capacity. The only way the gas company can estimate exactly how much gas has escaped will be when the relief well is completed and the leak is finally capped. At its peak in November, the well had released 58,000 kilograms of methane, although the rate of release has slowed at press time to about 18,400 kilograms per hour of methane.

The California Air Resources Board estimates that the leak has increased the state’s methane emissions by 25 percent in the first month and also reported that methane is 72 times more potent after it is released into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.