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Porter Ranch residents criticize SoCal Gas' methane monitor outage

Southern California Gas Company's methane monitoring system shows a methane reading of 66.6 parts per billion registered on Monday, Dec. 18. That's well above the normal 2 parts per billion reading. The company says natural gas, which is mostly methane, was released during some maintenance work on equipment at the Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility near Porter Ranch. The company has said its website that displays these readings for the public had an outage around the time of the Dec. 18 leak. screenshot/SoCal Gas

A website meant to alert Porter Ranch residents to unusual levels of gas in the air was offline around the time of  a leak Dec. 18 from equipment at the Aliso Canyon underground storage field, Southern California Gas said Tuesday.

The company said the outage was temporary and involuntary, but it prompted angry comments from some residents and workers in Porter Ranch located near the storage field.

"How is the public supposed to know when they need to get in their car and leave because they're about to get sick due to a release from the field?" said Andrew Krowne, an accountant who works in Porter Ranch.

The Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility was the site of the nation's largest-ever unplanned release of gas after an aging well ruptured. More than 8,000 households were relocated away from Porter Ranch and surrounding areas between October 2015 and February 2016, while the leak was still active.

To comply with a settlement in a criminal case, SoCal Gas installed eight monitors to detect methane along the fence line between the Aliso Canyon property north of Sesnon Boulevard above Porter Ranch homes. It also created an online website to view data from the monitors in real-time.

Methane is the main component of natural gas, so an elevated level of methane is a good indicator of a leak or gas release.

"The online portal that allows community members to view data from the fence-line monitoring system suffered a temporary, involuntary outage last week," SoCal Gas spokeswoman Christine Detz said in an email. "SoCalGas continues to troubleshoot the cause of that website outage."

The website appeared to have gone down a couple of days before the Dec. 18 gas release and was operating again Tuesday.

The company was not required under the settlement to create or maintain the website showing the methane levels near Porter Ranch.

"SoCalGas took the voluntary step to provide real-time methane level monitoring as an added step to help put the community at ease and will continue to do so," Detz said

Smaller leaks and gas releases continue to trigger anxiety and reported illnesses among households where residents have become sensitive to the gas. During the Dec. 18 leak, 34 households reported more than 100 symptoms, like headache and bloody noses, that they attribute to the gas.

The SoCal Gas website is one of two left in the area to show the public levels of gas. The other is an independent site sponsored by a law firm that is suing SoCal Gas on behalf of residents. Residents often take screenshots of the two websites to document potential causes of their symptoms.

Air quality regulators hit SoCal Gas with a notice of violation over the Dec. 18 gas leak. The leak registered 33 times the normal amount of methane on a monitor located near Porter Ranch homes. Natural gas is mostly methane.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District is also demanding SoCal Gas turn over the data recorded on eight methane monitors. The AQMD would make the emissions information public, said Kurt Wiese, general counsel to the agency.

The AQMD removed its own monitors from the area earlier this year.

The dispute over the offline methane monitor comes amid an existing battle that some residents are having with the company over an earlier release of gas.

The company announced on Dec. 2 that methane levels spiked to 58 parts per million due to a planned venting of gas at the storage field during some maintenance work.

The Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council responded Dec. 6 with a letter admonishing SoCal Gas for not announcing the venting in advance of the release. The letter asked several pointed questions, and when it did not get on-point responses, Council President Issam Najm and the council wrote back demanding better answers.

The Neighborhood Council wanted to know how many tons of methane were intentionally released in order for the methane to spike so high at the fence line, which could be a mile or more from the source of the gas.