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Natural Gas Leak in California Raises Health, Environmental Concerns

The infrared photos on the right and left show the methane plume, which is not visible to the naked eye as shown in the middle photo.
Courtesy of Environmental Defense Fund
The infrared photos on the right and left show the methane plume, which is not visible to the naked eye as shown in the middle photo.

Southern California Gas Co. says it detected a gas leak on Oct. 23 in its Aliso Canyon storage facility. A month and a half later, it still hasn't been able to stop it.

The company said in a statement on its website that they are drilling a relief well to plug the flow of gas — which they expect will take three to four months to complete.

"It's wholly unacceptable to have a pollution source of this magnitude going for upwards of six months, which is what the projections are," says Tim O'Connor, the director of California Oil and Gas at the Environmental Defense Fund. "Everybody is throwing everything they can at it to try to stop it, but it's obviously not been fast enough for the people of Porter Ranch or the climate of the planet." Porter Ranch is a residential community near the leak site.

And SoCal has another fight ahead of it: a lawsuit from the city of Los Angeles for not informing area residents about the leak right away, NPR member station KPCC reported. Los Angeles City Council member Mitchell Englander was not contacted by the company about the leak until three days after detection.

KPCC also reports:

"Residents began calling the 911 emergency line, the fire department and air quality officials a day after the leak erupted, complaining about the smell of a gas odorant called mercaptans. They also reported getting headaches and nosebleeds."

Call center employees told residents that the situation was normal, local residents told the station.

SoCal Gas's senior vice president of gas operations and system integrity, Jimmie Cho, said in a televised interview with Southern California's NBC4 on Sunday that the company "made all the proper notifications to the agencies." However, he says the company did not adequately communicate with the community about the leak.

"There was a communications gap between our operations group and the call center. Because when the customers smell gas, they don't call our operations, they call the call center. And because we hadn't notified the call center what was happening the call center thought that there was nothing going on."

KPCC reported at least 700 families have received temporary housing in order to evacuate in the area threatened by the leak.

The continuing gas flow is raising concerns about an environmental impact. The California Air Resources Board says the leak reached 58,000 kilograms of methane per hour in its measurement on Nov. 28.

Its test on Saturday showed that the leak has slowed to 36,000 kilograms of methane per hour.

"When you're thinking about 50,000 kilograms per hour and the climate impact of that, it's like running all of the refineries in California side-by-side," says O'Connor. "When we have a failure of this magnitude and this nature, it just goes to show that the consequences can be really quite dire."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
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