by Michael Novick, Anti-Racist Action-L.A.
The Aliso Canyon/Porter Ranch methane leak is so large it will measurably set back not just the city’s but the entire state’s greenhouse gas emission targets, effectively erasing nearly a decade’s worth of statewide emission reductions. It accounts for more than 25% of all emissions statewide, and gives the lie to the claims that methane, AKA “natural gas,” is a “clean” energy source. Two schools and thousands of nearby residents have been forced to move while the leak from an underground storage cavern continues unabated.
As we were going to press, the South Coast Air Quality Management District took a half-measure: a stipulated order of abatement agreed upon by the gas company that it control the massive cloud of noxious gas spewing from its Aliso Canyon Storage Facility. However, despite demands by residents and environmental activists, the AQMD’s 5-judge panel did not order the shut down of the entire gas field, a mile-and-a-half underground. SoCal Gas, which is “damage control” mode (as far as damage to its reputation and public relations) now claims it will be able to cap the leak by the end of February. The flow rate has diminished from early peaks mainly because the leak itself, and a draw down of the supplies within the reservoir, has relieved some of the pressure pushing the gas out.
According to the Environmental Defense Fund: “Methane, the main component of natural gas, is a powerful short-term climate forcer, with over 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it is released. Methane [was] estimated to be leaking out of the Aliso Canyon site at a rate of about 62 million standard cubic feet, per day. The daily leakage has the same 20-year climate impact as driving 7 million cars a day.” Erin Brocovich (who lives nearby and has met with residents and spoken at community gatherings) calls it the worst environmental catastrophe since the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Residents picketed a latest town hall meeting in Granada Hills, and then the AQMD hearings, with signs reading “shut it all down.”
The natural gas storage cavern and pipeline lacked a safety valve. In 1979, when the storage well was already about 25 years old, Southern California Gas Company had the original safety valve removed from the gas well, and then simply didn’t bother to replace it. A spokeswoman told the LA Times that they didn’t replace the safety valve because they weren’t required to by law. The Times reports that the valve still might not have stopped the leak, but it could’ve prevented the fumes from wafting over into the nearby Porter Ranch housing tracts, according to an attorney for displaced residents. ìUntil the facts are determined and this assessment is completed, it’s premature to comment further on the well or the cause of the incident,î responded So Cal Gas. Meanwhile, Gas Co. crews are erecting mesh screens around the well to prevent an oily mist from drifting off the site. Nearby residents are finding droplets of dark brown residue on their homes, vehicles, fish ponds and gardens.
In addition, as the leak continued, an AP investigation showed that So Cal Gas had understated the number of times that there have been spikes in airborne levels of benzene, a chemical that can cause cancer and anemia and is a neuro-toxin.
Southern California Gas Co. had been saying on its website that just two air samples over the past three months showed elevated concentrations of the compound. The AP inquired about discrepancies in the released data, and SoCalGas admitted higher-than-normal readings had been found at least 14 times.
SoCalGas spokeswoman Kristine Lloyd said it was “an oversight” that was being corrected. The utility continued to assert that the leak has posed no long-term risk to the public. But Seth Shonkoff, the executive director of an independent energy science and policy institute and a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley told the AP that, “I haven’t seen anything convincing that it’s been proven to be safe. I’m not going on record as saying this is absolutely an unsafe situation; I’m saying there are a number of red flags.” Gov. Jerry Brown finally and belatedly declared an emergency.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and US health officials classify benzene as an undisputed cause of leukemia and other cancers. WHO says, “No safe level of exposure can be recommended.” California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment set limits for the amount of benzene people could be exposed to: 8 parts per billion for a one-time exposure, 1 part per billion for repeated exposures for eight hours at a stretch, and 1 part per billion for several years or a lifetime. It’s likely that the levels, which have gone up to two parts per billion at least 14 times, violated the middle limit. Methane, as a relatively heavy gas, stays closer to the ground when released.
As we were going to press, it was announced that plans to try to contain and burn the escaping methane had been shelved because of the possibility of a catastrophic explosion, until Fire Department officials can give an okay. Nobody is saying what the possibility of an explosion is without attempting containment. Also, Ecowatch reports that high levels of methane are now being recorded all over the San Fernando Valley. City Councilman Mitch Englander called on So Cal Gas to provide relocation assistance to residents in Granada Hills, Chatsworth and Northridge who live east and south of the link, beyond those closest in Porter Ranch. These residents reported symptoms related to exposure to natural gas such as nausea, vomiting, headaches and respiratory problems. This means that the number of environmental refugees will continue to climb, with no solution to the pollution in sight.
It should be noted that much less attention has been paid to toxic leaks by Exxon and others at refineries in the Wilmington area, perhaps reflecting a difference in the income levels and political clout of the residents in suburban Porter Ranch as compared to those living near the toxic hot spots near the Harbor and its oil drilling and refining operations.