Jane Fowler says she’s crippled with fear over Southern California Gas Co. resuming injections at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility near her home.
The Granada Hills resident has endured headaches and nausea in recent years, she said, that would vanish when she distanced herself from the underground storage field, site of the largest natural gas leak in U.S. history.
“I am literally petrified every moment,” Fowler, wearing a gas mask and a “Shut. It. Down” T-shirt, told reporters in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday. “My chest is supertight on top of everything else I feel. My chest is tight from the anxiety and fear because this affects us physically.”
Nearby residents say they are bracing themselves for the worst after SoCalGas announced Monday that it had “started the process to resume limited injection operations” after approval from state gas and utility regulators and days of legal wrangling with Los Angeles County.
Activists gathered downtown Tuesday outside a California Public Utilities Commission proceeding on the future of Aliso Canyon to call on Gov. Jerry Brown to close the gas storage facility sooner rather than later. The CPUC is examining the long-term viability of the facility while Brown has asked the chairman of the energy commission to plan for the permanent closure of the facility within the next 10 years.
Injections into gas wells at the field located north of the community of Porter Ranch were halted after an aging well ruptured in October 2015, releasing more than 100,000 metric tons of potent methane over nearly four months, sickening thousands of residents and temporarily relocating more than 8,300 households.
The CPUC noted it certified the assessment by state oil and gas regulators that the facility “is safe to operate” and to reopen at a greatly reduced capacity in order “to protect public safety by preventing blackouts in Southern California.” This was done, it said, after “months of rigorous inspection and analysis of wells” and implementing new safety protocols.
“We kept the amount of gas stored at a minimum needed to ensure reliability of the entire system and confirmed that analysis with multiple agencies including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power,” CPUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the California Council on Science and Technology has been asked by the governor to provide the state with an up-to-date, independent technical study of the 13 natural gas storage fields in California, said USC engineering professor Najm Meshkati, a member of the council’s independent steering committee that’s overseeing the study.
Experts from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Laboratories are conducting that study. It will include a broad review of the potential health risks and community impacts associated with their operation, fugitive gas emissions and the links between gas storage, the state’s current and future energy needs and its greenhouse gas reduction goals.
It “will give the definitive answer for safety and the future of Aliso Canyon and all the other underground storage facilities in the state,” Meshkati said, noting the report is expected to be submitted to the CPUC and the state later this year after it is peer reviewed.
Maureen Capra, who has lived in Porter Ranch for nearly 44 years, said she was most concerned about her family’s health and safety despite assurances from SoCalGas and regulators.
Her daughter, who grew up next to the facility, had recurring nosebleeds until she moved away, she said.
And then there’s the question of the Santa Susana Fault Line, which runs through Aliso Canyon.
The study is slated to examine seismic issues, too. Los Angeles County, however, argued in court that injections should not resume until the seismic studies, along with the root-cause analysis of the massive leak by regulators, were completed.
Capra said she’s also concerned that several teachers at nearby Castlebay Lane Charter School in Porter Ranch as well as neighbors have gotten cancer in recent years, something she fears could be related to the facility. A long-term health study on the massive gas leak has yet to be conducted.
“People are getting sick still,” Capra said. “It’s in the ground now from the methane blowout so we’re still going to get sick.”
The nonprofit advocacy group Consumer Watchdog highlighted the “perception” of a conflict of interest involving the governor, whose sister serves on the board of Sempra Energy — the parent company of SoCalGas — and called for a probe into energy policy in the state.
Liza Tucker, a consumer advocate for Consumer Watchdog, 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.
Tucker, who released a report on the matter Tuesday, suggested that regulators could be sensitive to the fact that “Kathleen Brown sits on the board of Sempra” and said she should recuse herself over matters involving Aliso Canyon. The governor’s sister has earned more than $1 million in cash, stock and other benefits for her service to the company, Tucker said.
In response to the accusations, the governor’s office has said it’s exercising its full regulatory and oversight authority.
“The focus is the health and safety of residents, period,” a spokesman for the governor said.
State regulators echoed that sentiment. A spokeswoman for Sempra Energy said the company has “outside, independent” board members who are compensated under the same plan and said “we see no conflict.”