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The invisible catastrophe sickening families in California

January 18, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
Porter Ranch seems like a picturesque Southern California town, but an environmental disaster has been unfolding there for several months. Natural gas has been spewing from an underground storage facility, causing health issues for residents and forcing temporary relocations for thousands of households. Special correspondent Cat Wise reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we turn to the natural gas leak in Southern California.

Earlier this month, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for residents of the Porter Ranch neighborhood of Los Angeles, many of whom have been suffering from health impacts since the leak began in late October. Relief well drilling efforts continue at the site, but Southern California Gas Company, which owns the well, says it could be late February or March before they are able to stop all leaks.

Special correspondent Cat Wise recently visited Porter Ranch, and she filed this report.

CAT WISE: On the surface, it seems a serene, picturesque Southern California town, with gated communities and views. But Porter Ranch, which is home to 30,000 residents in Northern L.A., is anything but serene these days.

An invisible environmental disaster is unfolding in the hills above the community, where natural gas, seen in this infrared video taken by an environmental group, is now spewing out from one the country’s largest underground gas storage facilities called Aliso Canyon.

STEVE CONLEY, University of California, Davis: This one leak is roughly equivalent to the entire Los Angeles Basin. It will change California’s emissions for the year, substantially.

CAT WISE: Steve Conley an atmospheric scientist with the University of California, Davis, owns one of only a handful of planes in the country with specialized equipment that can measure gas leaks from the air.

For the last several months, he’s been flying the skies over Porter Ranch to monitor methane emissions for the state. Methane, a greenhouse gas, is the main component of natural gas. And it’s extremely potent. It’s more efficient at trapping radiation and heat than carbon dioxide.

STEVE CONLEY: That first flight, we measured something like 44,000 kilograms per hour. The best number that I have come up with to give people a perspective, it’s close to 100,000 pounds an hour. Every month, it’s the weight of an aircraft carrier.

My first thought was tapping the instruments, there’s something wrong, because we have never seen anything like that on any of our flights in the past.

CAT WISE: In recent weeks, as the Southern California Gas Company has begun to drain the reservoir where gas is stored, and reduce the pressure, the amount being released in the air has come down by as much as 60 percent, according to spokesman Mike Mizrahi.

But the company is still unclear why it happened.

MIKE MIZRAHI, Southern California Gas Company: We really won’t know what caused the leak until we’re able to stop it.

But we have estimated that, about 500 feet down the well, there was a break through the encasement around the pipe that’s used to inject and withdraw gas, and that natural gas is seeping through that encasement, up through the ground, and then coming up right about at the wellhead.

CAT WISE: The well causing all the havoc was built in 1953. Like other natural gas wells in the area, which are regulated by the state, it underwent yearly inspections and weekly pressure testing, but the day-to-day monitoring was done by personnel who smelled the air and listened for the sound of gas escaping. And that’s how this leak was discovered.

Much focus has been on a safety valve that was removed by the company and not replaced back in the late ’70s.

MIKE MIZRAHI: The regulations do not require that we put valves or sensors all the way down. The Department of Oil and Gas also has said we were in total compliance at the time of this leak. It’s speculative as to whether a valve in this well would have made any difference.

CAT WISE: You were in compliance, and yet, when public safety, public health is at risk, why not exceed that?

MIKE MIZRAHI: Well, in fact, we have a filing before the California Public Utilities Commission that dates to 2014, where we will be enhancing our inspection protocols, as well as our pressure testing protocols, that will hopefully give us the funding to be able to move forward.

CAT WISE: The well that is leaking is about a mile-and-a-half over that hill behind me. Some residents here have no problems with the gas, but thousands have been sickened by the strong odorants added to methane to make it detectable.

Local health officials say there are no long-term health impacts, but many residents remain concerned. The Cohens are among those families. For the past month, they have been staying at a hotel about 30 miles from their home in Porter Ranch. They decided to move after all four of them experienced health issues that they attributed to the gas leak, including nausea.

They are one of about 4,000 households that have relocated, or are in the process of relocating, to temporary housing paid for by the gas company.

BRIAN COHEN, Porter Ranch Resident: We’re still kind of figuring things out as we go. Everything’s on the fly right now. Our normal routine is not there.

STACEY COHEN, Porter Ranch Resident: We have to make the best of it. And we have to be positive and be there for our children and for everybody else in the community.

CAT WISE: On the morning we caught up with them, the Cohens were heading out for 7-year-old’s Weston’s (ph) first day back at school after the winter break.

But Weston wasn’t returning to his neighborhood school. He and nearly 2,000 other Porter Ranch students have been relocated to two temporary schools miles away.

L.A. Unified School District got these portable classrooms set up in just three weeks, a project that would normally take six months. The costs so far exceeds $5 million, and the district expects that the gas company will foot the bill.

All the disruption has been tough on the community, according to Paula Cracium, president of the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council.

PAULA CRACIUM, Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council: There’s this enormous stain on the community right now caused by this leak, and a stain that’s not going to go away the day after the leak’s fixed, unfortunately.

Property values have been enormously impacted. Small businesses have been impacted, and the question is whether or not they will even survive.

CAT WISE: Cracium has been a driving force in the effort to bring attention to the leak, including securing a meeting with Governor Jerry Brown that led in part to his emergency declaration.

And she is also pushing for better safety regulations at Aliso Canyon going forward. But she says the long-term solution isn’t easy, because millions in the L.A. area depend on the gas stored there for their for energy needs.

PAULA CRACIUM: We can’t flip on a switch and say no fossil fuels tomorrow. I mean, that’s just not a realistic approach to being able to provide for people and their needs.

But there’s a certain percentage of the community that is very confident that it can be made safe, and they’re comfortable with it being up there.

CAT WISE: Resident Matt Pakucko definitely isn’t comfortable with the wells above his home. Pakucko, who is a music producer with a recording studio in his garage, is the co-founder of a group called Save Porter Ranch. They have been advocating that the entire storage facility be closed, even before the leak started.

As we talked, the wind blew in the gas.

MATT PAKUCKO, Save Porter Ranch: You can smell the gas right now, right?

CAT WISE: I do smell it.

MATT PAKUCKO: Nice breeze and gas.

People are smelling gas and oil outside their homes in these neighborhoods. It has been going on for years and decades. You can’t have this — these kind of things next to residential neighborhoods. They say that, even if we had that safety valve, it may not prevent this. Are you telling us that you can’t stop a well blowout? Shut the place down.

CAT WISE: For scientist Steve Conley, the priority is better monitoring of future leaks.

STEVE CONLEY: As long as we are relying on fossil fuels, as long as we have houses that are using natural gas, we have to have a storage system. We have to store it.

And if we store it, we’re going to have leaks. One of the things I feel like we have learned from this is that, nationally, we should have a system in place to rapidly respond to these kind of events, because they’re going to happen.

CAT WISE: Back at the hotel, the Cohen family and another displaced Porter Ranch family are hoping it doesn’t happen again, and that they can go home soon.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Cat Wise in Porter Ranch, California.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The case in Southern California is dramatic, but not unique. Experts say that many smaller and mid-size leaks occur across the country, and while not as huge, combined, can add up to serious environmental damage. You can read more of that research on our home page, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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