Marking 6-year anniversary of disastrous Aliso Canyon gas leak, residents fight expansion

Marking 6-year anniversary of disastrous Aliso Canyon gas leak, residents fight expansion

On a windy day in October of 2015, a gas leak sprung up in the hills above Porter Ranch’s neighborhoods, releasing tons of methane and other chemicals, displacing two area schools and forcing residents from their homes in what later became known as the largest uncontrolled gas leak in the nation’s history.

Since then, the Aliso Canyon unground storage facility was reduced in its capacity. Two governors called to close the site. Los Angeles county and city officials urged the state to accelerate the closure plan for the field.

Yet six years later residents are still grappling with the consequences of the disastrous leak and the facility not just being open but possibly expanding its storage capacity.

Kyoko Hibino, cofounder and director of Save Porter Ranch, said she was still haunted by the memories of the gas leak that forced her family to relocate and experience health problems.

“It is extremely sad that we are still here fighting after six long years,” she said during a virtual conference marking the anniversary of the blowout. “Every time I smell gas and unknown chemical I fear of another blowout…It’s a mental and emotional trauma which stays with me wherever I go.”

This Dec. 17, 2016 photo provided by Earthworks shows an overhead aerial view of the relief well at the Aliso Canyon facility above the Porter Ranch area of Los Angeles. The utility that owns a natural gas well that has leaked uncontrollably for three months knew a devastating blowout was possible because of its age, design and the way it was being operated, according to state records and testimony. And state regulators were aware of the situation at the largest gas storage field in the West but said they were limited in their ability to stop it. (Pete Dronkers/Earthworks via AP)

 

Nearly two years after the gas leak started on Oct. 23, 2015, at the Aliso Canon facility, releasing about 100,000 tons of methane and other chemicals into the air, the California Public Utilities Commission, also known as the CPUC, opened proceedings aimed at minimizing or decommissioning the Aliso Canyon site.

In 2017, state regulators allowed the gas company to resume its operations and partial gas injection. The same year, former Gov. Jerry Brown called for the field to shut down within 10 years.

Then in 2018, the city attorney’s office, the county, the state attorney general reached a $119.5 million settlement with the gas company.

In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom sent a letter to the CPUC asking for an independent third-party expert’s advice on streamlining a permanent closure of the Aliso Canyon facility.

Later, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors urged the state to accelerate the decommissioning plan for the site, emphasizing that the health and environmental impacts from the disastrous gas leak are still not fully understood.

Matt Pakucko, Save Porter Ranch, talks about the gas leak prior to the hearing at Porter Ranch Community School. San Fernando Valley neighbors and others testified on Tuesday morning, August 6, 2019, on the Aliso Canyon gas leak, led by Sen. Henry Stern and Assemblywoman Christy Smith, who are examining the gas company and state regulators’ response to the 2015 blowout. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

“Unfortunately, the Public Utilities Commission has had six years to make progress,” said Food & Water Watch’s California Director Alexandra Nagy during Friday’s gathering of residents and activists, “but has done everything to erode public confidence in their actions towards closing it.”

She added that “any increase in storage limits at this time will expose the Public Utilities Commission’s failure to shut down the facility and we’re urging the Public Utilities Commission to reject this request by oil companies and SoCalGas to increase storage limits.”

On Nov. 3, the CPUC will hold a virtual meeting to discuss potential closure and replacement scenarios for the underground facility.

However, the following day, the CPUC will vote on whether to allow the gas company to increase the storage capacity limit to 80% at 68.6 billion cubic feet or approve another proposal, which offers to set the limit at 47% at 41.6 billion cubic feet.

A spokesperson for SoCalGas said in a statement that “experts and our regulators have consistently recognized that Aliso Canyon continues to play a vital role in the resiliency of California’s energy system, and supports the continued decarbonization of electricity by flexibly working to balance the peaks and valleys of solar and wind supply. .”

She added: “In the last two years, Aliso Canyon has provided support to the region’s electric and gas systems on more than 150 days. Use of this facility has helped keep energy prices stable and helped prevent outages during periods of peak energy demand.”

State Sen. Henry Stern, who represents communities impacted by the Aliso Canyon gas leak, said during the conference the fact that the gas leak anniversary overlaps with the potential increase in the facility’s storage capacity is “not a happy coincidence.”

“The trust is broken there and I don’t think it’s been repaired,” he said. “I think that this PUC decision will just be one more test of our will to actually shut Aliso Canyon down.”

Also still unclear: The future of the $1.8 billion settlement reached earlier this month between the utility, its parent company, Sempra Energy, and about 36,000 clients who filed nearly 400 lawsuits in the months following the gas leak.

For the settlement to move forward, about 97% of 36,000 plaintiffs need to sign up the agreement.

Two judges are currently working on creating an allocation protocol that would allow estimating the amount each plaintiff would be offered. Clients who opt out of the settlement will be able to pursue their claims individually in court.

The plaintiffs can mull until June 1, 2022, whether they want to accept the settlement terms. If less than 97% of the clients opt of the settlement, the case will go to trial.

During the four-month gas leak, residents said the blowout deeply impacted their lives and health, causing them to suffer from headaches, nausea, nosebleeds and other health issues.

The county Department of Public Health received $25-million to conduct a study of the long-term impacts of the gas leak on residents’ health.

The project received funding from the $120 million settlement between Southern California Co., and the county, city and state agencies.

But the health department has been criticized by residents and community groups for drafting a study that is too broad and underdeveloped.

Public health department officials maintained, though, that their study was comprehensive and addressed residents’ concerns.

“While we understand that there are some members of the community who may not be totally satisfied with Public Health’s approach, many that we have engaged have expressed appreciation for our efforts,” according to the public health department’s statement.

Accountant Andrew Krowne developed a phone app so that people in the San Fernando Valley can report symptoms they are experiencing that they believe are related to the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility above Porter Ranch. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Andrew Krowne, a member of the community advisory group that advises on the Aliso Canyon health study called the six-year anniversary of the gas leak “another sad and disappointing milestone.”

“The community has taken the lead since Day One,” he said. “It took a local physician to start looking at patients during and immediately after the blowout. It took a member of the community to start a symptom tracker rather than wait years for the government to catch up. Why is the community needed to take the lead?”

He also questioned why a health study has not started yet.

“Where is the urgency?” he said.

Staff from the county Department of Public Health is currently working on study proposals, officials said, after identifying residents’ health concerns.

Krowne noted the anniversary is a reminder that the community has been through many challenges in the past six years.

“Gov. Newsom looked our community in the face and promised to shut down Aliso (Canyon),” he said.

“We are instead going through what feels to us as a seemingly annual process of having to defend not only against the usage of Aliso Canyon,” Krowne added, ” but the continued expanded usage of this dangerous facility.”

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