It’s being called the biggest disaster since the 2010 BP oil spill. Since Oct. 23, in California’s Porter Ranch neighborhood, just outside of LA, massive amounts of methane have been leaking into the atmosphere, sickening and displacing residents. With over 150 million pounds emitted so far, experts estimate that it could take three to four months to stop the breach.
The source of the leak is the Aliso Canyon Storage Field, which is the largest underground methane storage facility in the western U.S., and which is owned by Southern California Gas Co. Experts believe the accident occurred because the well from which it came lacked a working safety valve; while one was supposed to be implemented back in 1979, the company failed to do this. As such, there was nothing to prevent the methane from leaking through a hole in a seven-inch diameter pipe, located about 500 feet underground.
Renowned American legal clerk and environmental activist Erin Brockovich is now working to seek justice for the victims of the leak – and, ultimately, of the natural gas company’s negligence. She is working for a law firm that is suing on behalf of residents. She remarked, “It’s like the BP spill on land. The scope of this is enormous.” Having seen thermal imaging of the emissions, she said, “It looks like a volcano that’s just erupting, that won’t stop. And the idea that Southern Cal Gas” never replaced the safety valve “is mind-blowing. So all of this methane, day in and day out, is just billowing out of this site, that’s affecting a very large landmass, and it’s an ongoing, constant assault to the community.”
The methane output could be responsible for a quarter of all California’s methane emissions this year, and could prove to be the worst such leak in the Golden State’s history. And it also doesn’t bode well for climate change, coming as an especially painful blow to hopeful environmentalists after the dangers of methane emissions were underscored at COP 21 in Paris. That’s because methane that enters the atmosphere takes roughly 12 years to fully break down. Furthermore, there is actually more of a risk in the short term from methane output than from carbon emissions. Already, sources say it’s released the greenhouse gas equivalent of seven million cars.
Methane is also highly flammable, and dangerous to inhale. Accordingly, hundreds of Porter Ranch residents have already been evacuated and placed in temporary housing. But for some, the damage has already been done. Resident Christine Soderlund said, “I’ve been nauseous, I’ve felt lethargic. My kids have had nosebleeds, they’ve had headaches. It’s surreal. It feels like we are a living science experiment.”
Some residents have formed the environmental advocacy group Save Porter Ranch, whose members foresee a long and difficult battle ahead. The group’s president, Matt Pakucko, said that Southern California Gas Co. is insisting there will be no long-term health effects on the community, but that residents shouldn’t buy that. “Their lives have been turned upside down, and it seems to be getting worse,” he said. “People are sick, their kids are sick. We’re not their guinea pigs.”
Photo: Save Porter Ranch demonstrates against the negligence of Southern California Gas Co. | Brian Melley/AP