The city of Los Angeles sued (pdf) the Southern California Gas Company on Monday, declaring a massive gas reservoir leak near the northern suburb of Porter Ranch was an “ongoing health emergency.”
A ruptured pipe at the bottom of an 8,750-foot-deep well at the Aliso Canyon storage facility has been leaking enormous amounts of methane into the ground and, ultimately, the atmosphere since at least October 23. The lawsuit says it is uncertain when the leak actually began.
The suit says the leak is releasing 100,000 pounds of methane every hour, adding about 25% to the state’s entire methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas addition that will help heat up the region.
“There is no end in sight to the harms caused by this release,” the lawsuit says. “Residents face potential significant risks to their long term health as well as potential contamination of groundwater.”
A class-action lawsuit (pdf) was filed last week on behalf of affluent Porter Ranch’s 30,000 residents. The suit alleged that “the toxic release of gas is so severe, experts brought to stop the fires in Kuwait in 1991 are now handling this massive gas leak.”
The gas, which is shipped in from around the Southwest and stored in a natural shale reservoir, is volatile and noxious in its own right, but also has Mercaptan added to make the otherwise odorless gas detectable. To that end, it smells like rotten eggs and causes headaches and worse. More than 200 people living about a mile from the leak have temporarily moved away.
The L.A. city attorney has a few bones to pick with the gas company. “The failure of the well should never have happened. The incredible duration of the crisis should have been avoided, and would have been avoided had So Cal Gas established and promptly implemented appropriate contingency plans for such an event, and pre-placed adequate mechanical and technical resources at the site to swiftly end the leak.”
Instead, the gas company engaged in “unlawful and unfair business practices,” and created a crisis.
The gas company didn’t acknowledge the leak, which had become quickly apparent to nearby residents, for a couple of weeks. The city attorney says that is a violation of law.
At the three-week mark, the company began Plan A—pouring some sort of heavy brine concoction down the well to seal off the leak. That didn’t work and created an unexpected oily mist that rose from the site and attracted the attention of a broader audience.
Officials began to ask why they hadn’t been kept in the loop on the problem about the time the gas company admitted that Plan A didn’t work and announced it was beginning to gear up for a switch to Plan B. Unfortunately, Plan B involves drilling another well and intercepting the gas and that will take months.
It takes time to bring in equipment, draw up plans, get personnel in place, talk to regulators and drill a well. It doesn’t appear the gas company did much of that ahead of time. “Much of the equipment necessary to enlist in attempting to stop the leak was located in the Gulf of Mexico area and took days to be brought to the Location of the well.”
Most of the gas stored in the reservoir is methane. But there are scarier gases mixed in—toulene, benzene, hydrogen sulfides, sulfur dioxide, ethylbenzene, and xylenes. Too much toulene can cause acute and chronic damage to the nervous system. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) categorizes benzene as a carcinogen. The mercaptan, alone, causes nausea, dizziness, headaches and nosebleeds.
The leak totally messes up the city’s long-term plans for meeting air-quality standards by flooding the zone with methane, a gas far more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. That’s bad news for a city that can expect to be 3 degrees warmer by 2050 because of climate change, the lawsuit says. The number of extreme heat days, above 95 degrees, will triple. By 2100, the number of extreme heat days will be double that.