US & Canada

California gas leak: Calls grow for shutdown

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Media captionErin Brockovich has compared the incident to an "oil spill on land"

Environmental activist Erin Brockovich has told the BBC that failing infrastructure and weak regulation are to blame for a catastrophic gas leak in California.

The leak in Porter Ranch near Los Angeles has forced more than 13,000 people from their homes.

It began on 23 October and has been blamed for a variety of health issues.

Ms Brockovich said it was the worst environmental disaster in the US since 2010.

"This is a BP oil spill on land," she said, comparing the natural gas leak to the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico six years ago, in which 11 people died.

The well was, she said, an "invisible volcano" spewing out gas "like lava", from the 3,600 acre Aliso Canyon underground storage facility in the Santa Susana mountains into the nearby community of Porter Ranch.

Image caption Erin Brockovich says the Porter Ranch case should raise awareness of failing infrastructure elsewhere in the oil and gas industry

At a public meeting last week, angry residents called for the entire complex - the second-largest such facility in the US, comprising 115 wells - to be shut down.

Kelly Hill, a homeowner and landlady in Porter Ranch, was applauded as she denounced a representative of the operator and the regulators sitting alongside him.

"You are destroying people's lives," an angry Ms Hill told Jimmie Cho, senior vice president of gas operations and systems integrity with domestic supplier SoCal Gas, a division of Sempra Energy.

Image caption Kelly Hill was passionate in her calls to "Save Porter Ranch"

Thousands of people had been "chased from their homes," she said, urging Mr Cho to "shut down this decrepit, archaic facility so that all of us families in Porter Ranch can go back to our lives. Save Porter Ranch!"

The company has resisted such calls, warning that closing the entire site could imperil the Los Angeles energy supply, although it was unable to provide a figure for the proportion of the city's gas supplied by Aliso Canyon.

Image copyright AP
Image caption SoCal Gas has promised that the leak will be plugged by the end of February

"We could have shortages of natural gas, blackouts for electricity, that's not something that we want to happen to the Los Angeles area," said SoCal Gas spokesman Mike Mizrahi. He denied that meant the company thought it worth the risk of leaks to keep the lights on.

"I wouldn't actually even call it a risk of leaks. We've operated this storage facility in good working order for 40 years. Safety is part of our DNA," he said.

Three months after it began though, Mr Mizrahi conceded that the firm still did not know what had caused the leak.

The company, he insisted, had complied with all relevant state and federal regulations in the run-up to the incident, although it had removed a safety valve in 1979. Some experts have argued this valve could have stopped the leak, a claim SoCal Gas denies.

At Thursday's public meeting some of the loudest cheers came when Ms Hill attacked the state regulators: the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which regulates privately owned utilities, and the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), which oversees the operation of wells.

"It is obvious to all of us now that SoCal Gas is allowed to do whatever they want," she said, adding that an "incestuous relationship" between the company and its regulators must end.

Image caption Porter Ranch residents put their concerns to politicians, regulators and a company executive at a meeting last week

According to the Governor of California, Jerry Brown, who earlier this month declared a state of emergency in Porter Ranch, CPUC and DOGGR have ordered an "independent third-party analysis" of the cause of the leak.

SoCal Gas has promised that it will be plugged by the end of February and the single well in question, a depleted oil field known as SS-25, will be taken out of use.

The use of old oil and gas wells for storing natural gas is relatively common in the United States, according to industry bodies.

SoCal Gas said the leak began when the casing around a pipe was breached at a depth of about 500ft (150m) although it was unable to say why this had happened.

Initial attempts to plug it failed. The company then drew up plans to capture and burn off the excess gas, but abandoned them amid concerns that it could lead to a catastrophic explosion.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Thousands of residents have had to relocate because of the leak

The leak in numbers

1.77 million: approximate number of cows burping for a year to produce equivalent methane

1.41 million: number of cars that would need to be added to the road to have a similar greenhouse effect in a year

13,000: number of people who have been relocated so far

Belching cows and the LA methane leak

The firm is now drilling a relief well to a depth of about 8,500ft to reduce the pressure of the escaping gas, the roar of which can reportedly be heard up to half a mile away.

The company attributes ill effects such as nausea, nosebleeds and headaches not to the invisible natural gas itself but to a sulphurous odorant added to it to make it easier to detect a leak.

Some residents have complained of breathing difficulties as well as severe stress as they were forced to move to temporary accommodation and send their children to new schools.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Residents are unhappy that it is taking so long to fix the leak

About 13,000 people in 3,340 homes had been relocated, with a further 11,000 or so in 2,810 homes waiting to move, the company said.

Music producer Matt Pakucko is one of those who has moved out. Until October he worked from home just over a mile from the leaking well at the foot of the hills which rise above Porter Ranch.

He now says he can only return to the recording studio in his house when the wind is blowing the gas away.

"It's been a nightmare," said Mr Pakucko, who is the co-founder of a residents' action group, Save Porter Ranch.

Before the leak, he was already campaigning for the entire facility to be shut down, arguing that the "regulators have completely failed" to protect the community.

"This is not a Porter Ranch problem. This is a global environmental disaster," he said.

Image caption Matt Pakucko says at times the air is unbearable and he can't work

The effect of the leak on human health is contested.

SoCal Gas insists there is no evidence that it poses a long-term risk but some scientists say there are not enough data to be sure, particularly about the effect of mercaptans, which give the gas its smell, and benzene, a carcinogenic organic compound in the natural gas.

"There's concern for some of the exposures for neurodevelopment in children, for respiratory effects," said Frank Gilliland, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California's Division of Environmental and Occupational Health.

But the "most likely effect" said Prof Gilliland was "from chronic stress from the whole disaster scenario that's happened….for post-traumatic stress that occurs in the population."

The scientist is seeking approval to carry out research into the health effects of the leak.

The effect of the leak on the environment is a little clearer thanks to measurements of the potent greenhouse gas methane.

According to pilot and scientist Dr Steve Conley of the University of California, Davis, who has been collecting the samples on a series of flights in the area, it could account for "roughly 10% of California's total methane emissions for the year."

"As a society we need to learn the lesson from this that we need to be more ready to respond when it happens," he added.

Image caption Steve Conley says a better response is needed to incidents like this

The lawyers are now sharpening their pencils, with the possibility of a class action lawsuit bringing together thousands of claims against SoCal Gas.

Ms Brockovich, who as a consumer advocate is working with the law firm Weitz and Luxenberg, said the Porter Ranch case should raise awareness of similar problems elsewhere.

Across the country, she said, "lack of oversight, lack of inspections and lack of enforcement" was now being exposed and challenged.

"We absolutely have failing infrastructures in the oil and gas industry… these things are corroded, they're dilapidated, they're in need of repair, they're in need of replacement, they need to be shut down and it is a problem across the United States."

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