Massive gas leak near Los Angeles plugged after 16 weeks

Posted at 6:01 PM, Feb 11, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-12 07:50:23-05


LOS ANGELES (AP) — The massive gas leak that spewed uncontrollably for nearly four months drove thousands of Los Angeles residents to pack up and leave their homes, while others rode it out.

Vicky Walker did both, turning her life upside down shuttling between hotels and home every few days, where she lived like a shut-in and stopped walking her dog to avoid the foul stench of gas.

While others blamed the leak for nosebleeds, nausea, headaches and other woes, Walker said she developed a persistent cough and packed on at least five pounds.

So it was with a measure of relief that she greeted the news Thursday that the blowout had been stopped for the first time in 16 weeks.

"I want to get back to life as I knew it as soon as possible," Walker said. "It's been horrible. You want the adjective? It's been horrifying."

The well still needs to be permanently sealed and inspected by state regulators, a process that could take several days. But the announcement by Southern California Gas Co. marked a milestone in efforts to stop the leak first reported Oct. 23.

If all goes according to plan, the upscale Porter Ranch community in the San Fernando Valley could begin to return to normalcy after schools were closed and 6,400 families were uprooted by the intermittent odor and fear it was harming their health.

Public health officials blamed symptoms on an odorant added to gas so it can be detected and have said they don't expect long-term health effects.

The leak at the largest underground gas storage reservoir in the West was declared an emergency by the governor. At its peak, the leak was estimated to contribute about a quarter of the state's climate-altering methane emissions, leading some to call it the worst environmental disaster since the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The leak is expected to cost the company, a division of Sempra Energy, $250 million to $300 million, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

That figure could climb much higher because it only accounts for costs of capping the well, lost gas and relocating families. It does not include penalties from government agencies, expenses to mitigate pollution and potential damages from more than 65 lawsuits, which the company noted could be significant.

While the gas was invisible, its impact could be seen in half-vacant subdivisions, two shuttered schools and on the faces of angry residents who packed public meetings and community forums and demanded the Aliso Canyon storage facility be shut down.

The blowout happened in a 60-year-old well that was built to pump oil from porous rock a mile-and-a-half below the Santa Susana Mountains. After the oil ran dry in the 1970s, the field of 115 wells was reused to store natural gas.

When demand and prices were low, gas was injected at high pressure in the ground. It was piped out during cold months or to fuel gas-run electricity plants during energy spikes.

Word that the leak had been controlled for the first time was met with a good deal of skepticism and a fear of returning to unhealthy homes or a repeat incident.

"Because this one well we know about is shut down, it doesn't indicate anything about the rest of the facility," said Matt Pakucko, president of Save Porter Ranch, a group advocating to shutter the facility. "People are terrified to go home."

Once cement is poured into the well to seal it and state regulators certify it is dead, high-tech equipment will be used to determine how the well ruptured.

Hotel dwellers will have eight days to return home once it is sealed, while those in apartments and rentals houses can stay through the end of short-term leases they signed.

In recent weeks, 1,700 families have returned home as the rate of the leak dwindled and air filters were installed in their homes, the company said.

Walker said she spent three to four nights a week in a hotel, but she returned regularly because it was too inconvenient to relocate her home office.

She said her neighborhood that borders the gas company property was "kind of ghost towny" and that those left behind mostly stayed inside.

Police patrols became a regular a feature after residents worried that their well-publicized exodus would bring crooks. Walker said she posted a sign on her sliding-glass door to deter would-be thieves.

"I won't tell you exactly what I put on the note," she said. "I'm an NRA member. We'll leave it at that."