The company responsible for the massive leak at Porter Ranch that has been spewing methane into the air for more than six weeks will likely need another three to four months to contain the rupture.
In the meantime, officials with Southern California Gas Company stressed that the health and safety of the public is not at risk from the continuous outpouring of chemicals, which include methane, benzene and other compounds.
“Those concentrations have always been below the screening thresholds set by air quality agencies, CalEPA and, in some cases, the scientific literature,” said Gillian Wright, vice president of customer services. CalEPA refers to the California Environmental Protection Agency.
Wright and other representatives for SoCal Gas — which has retained the services of a crisis management consulting company — addressed members of the media at a company location in Chatsworth on Wednesday afternoon.
They provided information about the steps the company has taken since the discovery of the leak on October 23. Those steps include six failed attempts to block flow and the current effort to dig a relief well. Jimmie Cho, senior vice president of gas operations and system integrity, said the equipment needed for the project began digging on Friday.
“This rig has been in operation 24/7. It’s going to work nonstop. And once we get to three-to-four months period, we expect that we’ll have closure in stopping the leak at that time,” Cho said.
Wright said the company is monitoring air twice a day at more than 20 locations throughout the site. She said the results of monitoring continue to show elevated levels of methane and hydrocarbons but at safe levels.
Residents have complained the odors associated with methane have caused nosebleeds, headaches and nausea.
Wright said the company has received more than 2,500 requests for temporary relocation from families in the affected area. So far, more than 1,100 of those families have relocated, and the company is picking up the tab.
“We are providing temporary housing at our cost or reimbursement for their costs, if they choose to find their own. We are also reimbursing meals and transportation costs, particularly to work and school. In terms of the funds, we have adequate funds available to cover the relocations necessary,” Wright said.
The site at Porter Ranch acts as underground storage for natural gas with a capacity of 86 billion cubic feet. Cho said at the time the leak began, the company had stored 77 billion cubic feet of gas. Efforts to offload that gas to other wells, to reduce pressure, have removed nine billion cubic feet.
How much gas has been lost to the environment isn’t known. Cho would not put an estimate on the amount.
“Once this event is over, and we have stopped the leak, we’ll take a very fact-based measurement of what has been released," Cho said. "Right now, it would be purely speculative, and it would be premature to try to figure that out."
The state Air Resources Board has estimated 50,000 kilograms of gas are leaking into the air each hour, increasing California’s greenhouse gas production by 25 percent. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide at trapping heat.
Response and criticism
Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich announced on Wednesday the county would be declaring a state of emergency for the leak and asking for state and federal assistance in capping the well.
On Friday, the governing board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District approved $270,000 to purchase four new monitoring devices. Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the AQMD, said the new equipment would allow real time and remote monitoring of emissions from the site.
“We hope to have these high-tech instruments, which include some that can be mounted on a vehicle, deployed within the coming weeks,” Atwood said. “These will give us a much better picture of the methane and of the sulfur compound emissions from the gas company leak at Porter Ranch.”
SoCal Gas has been widely criticized for a perceived slow response to the crisis. Multiple lawsuits have been filed against the company, including one on Monday from Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer’s office.
Feuer told KPCC one of the reasons behind the lawsuit is to bring judicial oversight to the company’s containment response.
“We want to be sure that a court is enforcing every step that can be taken to repair the leak, and that is different from simply relying on the gas company to say they’re working as fast as possible,” Feuer said.
Feuer said the length of time it has taken to begin digging the relief well indicates a lack of preparedness by the company.
“I don’t think that any community should have to endure what the Porter Ranch residents have suffered for this duration, and it’s up to us to stand up for them,” he said.