Aliso Canyon underground storage facility

Aliso Canyon underground storage facility

A natural disaster of unprecedented proportion is unfolding in California but has received little national attention.

Near Los Angeles, a leaking natural gas well – which has been spewing noxious fumes for months – is now, according to some, emitting “lethal levels” of radioactive material.

Alternately called the Aliso Canyon gas leak or the Porter Ranch gas leak, it is an enormous and uncontrolled natural gas well leak connected to the Aliso Canyon underground storage facility owned by Southern California Gas Company.

The methane is spewing from one of 115 wells at the company’s facility in the Santa Susana Mountains, which is used to store gas for distribution to nearly 22 million customers in the L.A. Basin. It has a capacity of 86 billion cubic feet and is one of the largest of more than 400 natural gas storage fields around the country.

The leak was discovered on Oct. 23, 2015, during a routine twice-a-day observation. The source of the leak is a breached seven-inch metal pipe casing in an injection well that lies 8,750 feet underground. There are concerns the aging underground infrastructure is “junk.”

The extent of the invisible plume was not appreciated until a Dec. 7, 2015, video emerged depicting a cloud of methane gas hovering over the nearby upscale community of Porter Ranch. Shot with an infrared camera, it captured the leak in a way not possible using visible light.

Stephen Conley, an atmospheric scientist with U.C. Davis, is single-handedly measuring the gas emissions from the methane leak. He has made pollution-detecting flights over some of the largest oil and gas fields in the nation, but never encountered as much methane in the air as in recent months over Porter Ranch. Without his niche specialty, the true size of what is likely the largest methane leak in U.S. history may not have been known.

“On the first flight, in November,” reported the Los Angeles Times, “methane levels above the community jumped to 50 parts per million, so high that Conley double-checked his instruments in disbelief. ‘This is probably 20 times bigger than anything else we’ve measured,’ Conley said.”

Using Conley’s measurements, the Sacramento Bee reported the facility was releasing 44,000 kilograms of methane per hour, or the monthly equivalent of the greenhouse gases released by more than 200,000 cars, according to the California Air Resources Board.

Residents of Porter Ranch have been strongly affected by the gas leak, with reports of headaches, nausea, severe nosebleeds, respiratory problems, and eye, ear, and throat infections. SoCal Gas has temporarily relocated over 11,000 people so far.

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Methane makes up the largest component of natural gas, which is both invisible and odorless. It is considered a much worse offender as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide – 86 times greater over 20 years, tapering off to 29 times the effect of carbon dioxide over a 100-year time frame. Odorants such as mercaptan added to the gas are responsible for the symptoms of headache and nausea.

Health officials have said the gas is not harmful. The Los Angeles Times states, “State regulators and scientists monitoring methane from the leak throughout the Los Angeles region emphasized the gas is not at concentrations that pose a health or safety risk to residents.”

But alarmists have claimed the leak is far more serious than health officials are letting on, citing the radioactive material such as uranium and radon in the natural gas. “This rogue well is spewing huge amounts of natural gas and about 1.91 curies an hour of natural radioactive material in the natural gas … 1.91 curies an hour is about 45.9 curies per day,” notes Superstation95. “It’s a really, really big leak.”

Certainly the scale of the leak is unprecedented. In three months, the Porter Ranch leak “has spewed more greenhouse gases than any other facility in California. At its height, the leak more than doubled the methane emissions of the entire Los Angeles Basin and surpassed what is released by all industrial activity in the state,” reported the LA Times.

Ironically the leak occurs as Governor Jerry Brown works to reduce emissions of methane and other short-lived climate pollutants by 40% or more by the year 2030.

“It’s really moving us in the wrong direction,” said Jorn Herner, chief of research planning, administration and emissions mitigation at the state Air Resources Board.

On January 6,  Gov. Brown issued a state of emergency. The Los Angeles Times states, “Brown’s action came after weeks of demands by residents, activists and local officials for the governor to intervene. In the proclamation, Brown cited the ‘prolonged and continuing duration of this natural gas leak and the request by residents and local officials for a declaration of emergency.’

“The governor ordered state agencies to ‘utilize all necessary state personnel, equipment, and facilities to ensure a continuous and thorough response to this incident.’ Unlike with most emergency proclamations, however, he did not suspend state laws, cut red tape or commit more resources or public funds to address the leak.”

Ongoing efforts to plug the well have been unsuccessful. Southern California Gas crews are in the process of drilling a relief well to seal off the damaged one. Work is expected to be completed by late February. In January, the gas company abandoned a plan to capture and burn the leaking methane after regulators raised concerns about safety and explosion risk.

Porter Ranch gas leak

“If there is any good news,” reports the LA Times, “it is that they show the leak rate has been declining since its peak on Nov. 28, when the well released 58,000 kilograms of methane per hour.” By late January, the rate had dropped by two-thirds to 18,400 kilograms per hour.”

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