2 Years After A Gas Leak Filled The Air Over Porter Ranch, What’s Next For Aliso Canyon?

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Perhaps some day, every well up in Aliso Canyon will sit empty and dry, with no trace— not one molecule— of natural gas left in the hills above Porter Ranch.

But a shadow of doubt and worry would likely still linger among the residents who live below.

Two years ago, the well known as SS-25 ruptured, sending more than 100,000 metric tons of natural gas spewing into the air. The people of the Porter Ranch area still remember how the methane and mercaptans snarled their breathing and gnarled their stomachs. They recall that they’ve endured headaches and nosebleeds since. And, many allege, they remember how little has been done since to answer so many lingering questions.

Two years later, that well sits unused. But the gas fields above them still operate — in a limited capacity.

Some wells are still being used despite the fact that no one knows precisely why the offending well failed. Or what kinds of chemicals remain in the soil. Or how the scene will affect the rest of their lives.

Even if the Aliso Canyon gas fields are shuttered forever, they wonder: what will come after?

“Whenever you have a facility that’s a heavy user of chemicals, you always worry about what they’re going to leave behind when they say shut it down,” said Issam Najm, president of the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council.  The environmental engineer specializing in water quality and treatment moved from Chatsworth to Porter Ranch in 2004.

But SoCalGas officials still see a facility that remains vital to the energy needs of 11 million customers across the region.

Worries like Najm’s are no longer needed, they say. Over the last two years, they’ve worked to complete a process that “experts have called the most comprehensive safety review in the country,” officials said. They laud the addition of new safety measures,  including replacing the inner metal tubing of every approved well, using the casing around this new tubing to provide a secondary barrier of protection against leaks, and operating the facility at a reduced pressure level.
State officials seemed to echo such reassurances.

“Every step the state has taken since the Aliso Canyon leak began has been taken with the goal of ensuring such an event never occurs again,” said Don Drysdale, spokesman for the California Department of Conservation, which oversees regulation of the facility. “Southern California Gas Co. was required to make significant upgrades to equipment and practices at the facility, and Aliso Canyon will operate with significantly reduced storage capacity and maximum injection pressures.”

He said if the Aliso Canyon gas fields were to close, California’s “stringent requirements for well plugging and abandonment would apply.”

Land use, Drysdale added, would be addressed by other agencies, including the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and local government.

Nonetheless, members of Save Porter Ranch and other organizations in the area plan to hold a demonstration Monday, to mark the second anniversary of the start of gas leak, which was capped almost four months later.

As they have done many times before, they’ll gather at the top of Tampa Avenue, at the gates of the Porter Ranch community to once again demand that Gov. Jerry Brown shut Aliso Canyon down before he leaves office. They have collected 100 letters and 100,000 petition signatures urging the shutdown.

For them, the enduring emotion for the past two years has been uncertainty, Najm said.

Aliso Canyon is a private facility and the public has no idea just how contaminated the soil could be, Najm said. That’s just one of many unanswered questions, he said.

The California Public Utilities Commission is currently assessing the underground storage facility’s future.

CPUC officials are working to determine the feasibility of eliminating— or further reducing — its use. The agency is examining the projected impact on electric and gas rates, as well as system reliability, if the facility is further restricted or shuttered. A final decision by the five CPUC commissioners is expected as early as mid-2018, but the process could continue into early 2019.

“The PUC certainly holds the strongest card in this game,” Najm said.

Spotty clean-up record, some say

California regulators have a lackluster record of decommissioning facilities safely and adequately across the Golden State, say some activists who have fought similar battles.

“I don’t know of a single situation in California that has been handled correctly,” said Dan Hirsch, president of the activist group Committee to Bridge the Gap, which worked with residents for 30 years to push for a thorough clean-up at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.

Nestled between Simi Valley and Chatsworth, that 2,668-acre complex of abandoned industrial research facilities was once used to test rocket engines and conduct nuclear research. It was not fully shut down until 2006 and is now mostly owned by Boeing.Supervision of its clean-up, which has yet to happen, has fallen under the oversight of California’s Department of Toxic and Substance Control. The DTSC also is supervising a plan to clean up 2,500 homes near Vernon’s shuttered Exide Technologies battery-recycling plant, where homes have been contaminated with toxic materials. Activists have said the DTSC allowed Exide to operate for 33 years under a temporary permit, despite warnings of environmental violations and harmful levels of lead and arsenic released. Those toxins were later discovered in homes, yards and schools nearby.

Hirsch compared the DTSC’s permission to allow Exide to operate with a decision made this summer by two other state regulating agencies regarding Aliso Canyon.

The state Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) and the California Public Utilities Commission deemed 42 Aliso Canyon gas wells safe and allowed the Southern California Gas Company to resume natural gas injections into those wells. Hirsch and others said the decision to reopen those wells was made despite:

A pending report on the root cause of the leak.
A pending seismic study.
A warning by a former SoCalGas manager over potential “catastrophic loss of life” in the event of a major earthquake, according to court documents.
No long-term health study, even though there were 2,000 reports of illnesses through Sept. 7 — including nosebleeds, headaches and nausea — made by residents to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
Reports by consultants that deemed the natural gas storage facility unnecessary, because alternative energy sources are available.
“Any industrial accident like this, you fix it before you even consider going forward,” Hirsch said. “I’m shocked, but not shocked. All throughout the state, if you are a developer, a big polluting company, the regulator acts to protect you rather than protect the public from you. The people of Porter Ranch really need to unite.”

10-year plan not good enough?

Under Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration, the California Energy Commission has proposed closing Aliso Canyon within 10 years. But that hasn’t stopped the “Shut it Down!” chants. And it hasn’t stopped activists’ criticism of Brown himself.

Alexandra Nagy, of Food & Water Watch, an organization that has been working with the Porter Ranch community since the leak began, said the state’s decision ignored requirements made by several county agencies— including making an effort to find the root-cause, launching seismic studies to assess the risk of quakes and analyzing the long-term health effects among residents.

“Even if the facility were closed, residents should still be concerned about long-term health effects of living next to such a toxic and polluting facility for years/decades plus being exposed to an unprecedented release of gas and toxic/carcinogenic chemicals during the blowout,” she said. “The health of the residents and community will still need to be monitored closely over a 10-year period like is being proposed by the L.A. County Department of Public Health.”

Liza Tucker, a consumer advocate for Consumer Watchdog, has argued “a lot of infrastructure” has been approved by regulators that is not to the benefit of ratepayers and even threatens the health and welfare of nearby residents.

If the governor is so “pro-green,” she asks, why not shut Aliso Canyon down? A report by her organization released this year suggested that regulators could be sensitive to the fact that “Kathleen Brown sits on the board of Sempra,” the parent company of SoCalGas. The governor’s sister has earned more than $1 million in cash, stock and other benefits for her service to the company, Tucker has said.

The governor’s office has denied there’s any conflict of interest. “The state is exercising its full regulatory and oversight authority,” Evan Westrup, a spokesman for the governor, has said. “The focus is the health and safety of residents, period.”

“If California is trying to get off fossil fuels, and this is the stated goal of Brown and Senator Kevin de Leon, why are we perpetuating the use of natural gas, especially in a location where it’s threatening people’s lives?” Tucker said.  “Why not start with the low-hanging fruit?”

California regulators said the decision to allow SoCalGas to reinject followed 17 months of what the regulators called “rigorous inspection and analysis of wells” at Aliso Canyon as well as putting new protocols in place. But their decision also came on the same day when the state’s energy commissioner, Robert Weisenmiller, noted in a letter that the governor had asked him “to plan for the permanent closure of the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility” in light of the state’s climate change goals.

A spokesman for Gov. Brown has confirmed the governor made that request.

Is Aliso Canyon ‘critical’?

For their part, SoCalGas officials have declared Aliso Canyon “a critical part of the region’s energy infrastructure,” serving more than 11 million customers and providing fuel to 17 natural gas-fired power plants.

“More than 90 percent of Southern Californians depend on gas for heat and hot water,” the company said in a statement,” and approximately 60 percent of all the electricity generated in California is made by natural gas-fired power plants.”

“Every step the state has taken since the Aliso Canyon leak began has been taken with the goal of ensuring such an event never occurs again.”

— Don Drysdale, spokesman for the California Department of Conservation

Over the last two years, despite pushback from critics, officials have issued dire warnings about blackouts across Southern California without the use of the natural gas from Aliso Canyon.

The company was swift to lists new layers of protection against leaks, including injecting and withdrawing natural gas only through the inner metal tubing of approved wells — instead of through both the tubing and the casing. Some well experts consider the latter method, which was was used at the time an aging well failed at Aliso Canyon in October of 2015, a riskier way to operate, according to an inewsource report.

Other improvements include the introduction of an infrared methane detection system and constant monitoring of the pressure in all wells from its operations center.

But federal, state and local policymakers say despite those measures, Aliso Canyon should be shut down.

“That facility should have never been reopened,” state Sen. Henry Stern, D-Canoga Park, told a crowd of Porter Ranch residents at a recent presentation on how their health could be affected by the gas leak.  “Gov. Brown has all the authority he needs to shut down the facility now. He should shut down Aliso Canyon now and forever.  It’s not going to be easy, but the truth is on our side.”

On the county level, representatives also say they are tuned in to the future of the site and its impact on residents.

“The county will remain fully engaged in the oversight process to help ensure the health and safety of our local residents,” vowed Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger.

But the voices of local lawmakers may not be loud enough, said Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch Englander, whose district includes Porter Ranch.  Residents need to unite, he said, because state regulators won’t be there for them.

“I don’t think the politicians’ voices are being heard by the regulators enough,” Englander said. “I think it’s going to take an active community to keep the pressure on and keep this issue in the forefront.

Englander said the community must speak out not just for themselves, but  to prevent new housing from being built near facilities where there could be health risks.

For residents such as Najm, continued involvement is no longer an option.

He started serving on the board and as president of the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council in June of 2016.

“I was never in public life,” he said. “But this leak got me angry, and I decided that I either complain about it, or get on the Board and try to do something about it.”


Susan Abram covers public health and county government for the Los Angeles Daily News and the Southern California News Group.
Follow Susan Abram @sabramLA

Brenda Gazzar is a multilingual multimedia reporter who has worked for a variety of news outlets in California and in the Middle East since 2000. She has covered a range of issues, including breaking news, immigration, law and order, race, religion and gender issues, politics, human interest stories and education. Besides the Los Angeles Daily News and its sister papers, her work has been published by Reuters, the Denver Post, Ms. Magazine, the Jerusalem Post, USA Today, the Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, The Cairo Times and others. Brenda speaks Spanish, Hebrew and intermediate Arabic and is the recipient of national, state and regional awards, including a National Headliners Award and one from the Associated Press News Executives’ Council. She holds a dual master’s degree in Communications/Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Texas at Austin.
Follow Brenda Gazzar  @bgazzar

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