Health officials acknowledge delay in comprehending scope of gas leak

Crews from SoCalGas and outside experts work on a relief well at the Aliso Canyon facility above Porter Ranch on Dec. 9, 2015. Once the relief well is connected to the leaking well, SoCalGas will pump fluids and cement into the bottom of the leaking well to stop the flow of gas and permanently seal the well.
Crews from SoCalGas and outside experts work on a relief well at the Aliso Canyon facility above Porter Ranch on Dec. 9, 2015. Once the relief well is connected to the leaking well, SoCalGas will pump fluids and cement into the bottom of the leaking well to stop the flow of gas and permanently seal the well. Dean Musgrove/Los Angeles Daily News

Just as it took Southern California Gas Company a while to realize a ruptured well near Porter Ranch could pollute the air for several months, officials with the Los Angeles County Public Health Department acknowledged it took them time to understand the scope of potential health problems.

The health department was notified of the Oct. 23 leak at the Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility five days after it occurred. But residents  did not start reporting health symptoms in large numbers until early November, said Dr. Cyrus Rangan, director of the department's Bureau of Toxicology and Environmental Assessment.

By then, Southern California Gas Company's crews had failed in several attempts to plug the leak by putting first water, then brine, then heavy mud down into the well.

"We expanded our efforts and recommendations about air monitoring, when it became apparent that the problem would be going on for an extended period of time," said Rangan, a medical toxicologist.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District  began testing the air Oct. 26. SoCal Gas has also been doing extensive air quality testing in the area.

Rangan spoke to the Porter Ranch Community Advisory Committee Thursday evening at its weekly meeting. The committee includes representatives of a residents' group called Save Porter Ranch, elected neighborhood councils from Porter Ranch, Chatsworth and Northridge. It's a forum where community representatives gather information from SoCal Gas executives and various other experts, mostly from government agencies.

Air quality tests by various entities revealed 13 instances among about 1,000 samples where the level of benzene -- a known carcinogen - topped 1 part per billion, said Katherine Butler, an environmental epidemiologist with the county public health department. One reading was as high as 5 parts per billion, she said.

Benzene is also emitted by vehicles and gas-burning engines, and there is an average background level of about .45 parts per billion in the Los Angeles area.

Associated Press reported Thursday that Southern California Gas Co. had been posting on its public information website the normal background level was 2 parts per billion. That misstatement made it appear as if benzene levels had spiked higher than the background level only twice, with two samples on Nov. 10.

The range of items discussed at the group's weekly meetings make it clear how thoroughly the natural gas leak has upturned daily life in Porter Ranch and surrounding communities. A sampling:

Dead birds in backyards: Birds die all the time and they have to land somewhere, but residents of Porter Ranch have been asking about sightings  of dead birds in their backyards. Los Angeles County Public Health is sending out experts to see if the carcasses show anything out of the ordinary. They can't actually tell if the birds died of the methane or smelly mercaptans or from more traditional causes of death.

Crowded pet kennels: Licensed places to board pets at SoCal Gas' expense  are filling up. Of some 12,000 residents, many are in local hotels, and pet owners are reluctant to leave their pets alone during the day or long-term in local kennels where they can't see them as often. Some residents are pressing the Gas Co to let them board animals at non-licensed places, or at pet day care places. SoCal Gas Vice President Gillian Wright, who is heading up the relocation effort said she was reluctant to do so, but might consider it if the pet owners waive liability for unlicensed pet boarding places.

Bigger pier diem: The amount SoCal Gas is paying to feed re-located people has gone up to $45 per person per day, no matter the age. That amount had been what SoCal Gas was paying for adults. Teens and children had been eating for $35 and $25 a day respectively, but that reimbursement got too complicated. So the Gas Co just pays the flat fee.

Rent gouging: Despite no actual complaints being filed yet with county as of Wednesday, local authorities are going to investigate allegations of rent gouging and might even go undercover to investigate it, said Brian Stiger, head of the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs. The city attorney's office, district attorney and county counsel may also have a role in enforcing anti-gouging clauses of state and county law that kick in with the states of emergency.

Oily mist: Droplets of some sort of residue coming from the gas leak prompted  public health officials to warn residents not to eat fruit and vegetables grown above ground. They don't think it would hurt you much to eat it, but getting it on your hands could irritate skin or cause problems if it gets in a cut. They also advise not to leave pets outside if owners are noticing the oily black droplets on their property. SoCal Gas is giving out cleaning solution to help get it off outdoor furniture and play equipment.

Air scrubbers: SoCal Gas is installing some 200 air scrubbers and plug-in home filtration systems a day, part of some 11,000 they've ordered up for homes in Porter Ranch and nearby areas.

Invasion of the gas sweepers: Residents of Porter Ranch got a bit of a scare one recent Sunday when SoCal Gas sent 40 of their employees with gas-sniffing "sweepers" to check the neighborhood for gas leaks. The gas company says it's routine.

Stress: The gas leak and all the adjustments people have had to make because of it can show up in added stress and behavior changes, public health authorities said. They advised people to be alert to higher stress levels and to call the department for advice and other resources if it gets bad.

Thursday's was the fourth of the group's meetings. Next Thursday's will be canceled so members may attend one called by Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Glendale), chairman of the Utilities and Commerce Committee. The next is on Thursday, Jan. 28.

A community meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Friday at Shepherd of the Hills Church, 19700 Rinaldi Street in Porter Ranch. 

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