By Miriam Raftery
January 19, 2016 (Los Angeles) – Southern California Gas (SoCalGas) announced yesterday that its relief well drilling to stop the massive Aliso Canyon natural gas leak north of Los Angeles is “proceeding ahead of schedule and the company expects to stop the leak by late February, if not sooner.”
The relief well drilling began December 4th and must reach a depth of 8,500 feet. “Once the well is sealed, it will be taken out of service permanently,” a SoCalGas press release states.
In addition, the company announced it has abandoned its earlier proposal for a gas capture system to burn off leaking gas because of safety concerns expressed by its engineers. State regulators had also expressed concerns that the plan could potentially result in a fire.
Jimmie Cho, senior vice president of gas operations for SoCalGas, a subsidiary of Sempra Energy in San Diego, said the company has had a team of experts working around the clock. “Our top priority remains the safety of those working on the site and of the nearby community. We are focsed on stopping the leak as quickly and safely as possible, mitigating the environmental impact, and supporting the community,” he said.
A leaking underground gas storage site in the urban area has pumped over 85,000 metric tons of methane into the air since the leak was detected October 23rd, amounting to 1% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions according to SoCalGas, though some other experts have estimated the impact on climate change to be substantial. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, each day of the leak spews as much climate pollutant into the air as 4.5 million to 9 million cars.
Last week, the company admitted that an earlier statement indicating only two methane spikes had been measured was inaccurate, and that in fact 14 spikes have occurred in the impacted area. However yesterday the company issued a new statement indicating benzene levels on Friday were consistent with benzene levels for the broader Los Angeles region. Benzene exposure has been linked to blood cancer, among other health problems.
The environmental disaster has been called the worst since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has indicated there will be “hell to pay” for when asked by KNX radio if criminal charges should be filed against whoever is responsible. Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency over the leak.
The leak has forced evacuation of thousands of families in Porter Ranch. Some political leaders have called for broader evacuations including Northridge, Granada Hills and Chatsworth, where high methane levels have also been measured and some residents have complained of health symptoms experienced by themselves and their pets. SoCalGas, in its latest media release, indicated it is responding to complaints in those areas on a case by case basis.
SoCalGas and its parent, Sempra, owner of Southern California Gas & Electric (SDG&E) has been targeted by at least 25 lawsuits filed by residents, the city and county of Los Angeles seeking damages. The legal actions claim negligence, hazardous activity, nuisance and trespass, seeking compensation for physical injuries, emotional harm, and reduced property values.
Celebrity attorneys have recently met with concerned residents, including environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (son of the late Senator) and Erin Brockovich, whose successful legal fight against Pacific Gas & Electric over polluting a town led to a $333 million settlement and the Oscar-winning movie, “Erin Brockovich.”
Brockovich told residents at a recent townhall meeting, “If you don’t’ have information—and information that is truthful—you cannot protect what’s most valuable and important to you—that is your health and the welfare of your families and your safety.”
Sempra has retained the San Diego law firm Latham & Watkins to represent the company.
Yet to be resolved is who will pay for the damages caused by the leak. Sempra ratepayers have already been asked to absorb the company’s uninsured losses for some of the 2007 wildfires, as well as costs of Southern California Edison’s errors that led to a radiation leak and shutdown costs of the San Onofre generation stations in a region that already had among the highest electricity rates in the nation.