In Los Angeles, California, the neighborhood of Porter Ranch has been enduring an environmental catastrophe of historic proportions in the form of a natural gas leak since mid-October 2015. On a normal day, the sun shines brightly over Porter Ranch, which is surrounded by the Santa Susana Mountains to the north, the Granada Hills to the north and east, and Brown’s Canyon to the south and west. Unfortunately, the bliss of the neighborhood came to an abrupt halt on October 23, 2015, when employees of the Southern California Gas Company (“SoCalGas”) noticed a leak from the ground caused by the malfunction of a well.
Upon investigation, SoCalGas determined that Well SS-25 was releasing a tremendous amount of natural gas into the environment. SS-25 was originally built in 1953 and was equipped with a sub-surface safety valve intended to prevent these types of gas leaks. Problematically, SoCalGas had not inspected the well since 1976. Even more egregiously, the safety valve was removed from the well in 1979. In defense of this decision, SoCalGas noted that the well was not considered “critical” and thus the safety valve was not replaced. This decision has been questioned by many given that the safety valve likely would have prevented the leak in its entirety.
The leak is highly damaging, in part, because of the vast amount of methane gas that is being released into the atmosphere. Of note, methane gas is considered to be one of the most problematic types of greenhouse gas emissions. The gas release represents an increase of approximately 25% of all California’s methane emissions and is producing greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 2.3 million cars each day.
The disaster is not just damaging to the planet, but it has had a very real effect on the residents of Porter Ranch, too. Although public health officials state that there are no long-term health risks from these exposures, the symptoms residents are experiencing paint a different picture. In some parts of the neighborhood, half of the families have temporarily moved away, complaining of headaches, dizziness, nosebleeds, and vomiting. Other residents have been seen wearing surgical masks. Of the symptoms, one resident stated, “It’s like a fog in your brain – it feels like you’re having a stroke.” The gas also contains benzene, a known human carcinogen which has been linked to leukemia and aplastic anemia, among other diseases.
At this time, SoCalGas has been unable to commit to a date when the leak will be fixed, and some sources predict that the leak is likely to continue until at least February 2016. The Federal Aviation Administration has declared a no-fly zone over the area due to safety concerns. On January 6, 2016, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for the neighborhood. Simply put, environmental activist Erin Brockovich spoke for many when she declared the SoCalGas leak as the “worst environmental disaster since the BP oil spill of 2010.” In response, various efforts have been made for judicial relief for the victims of this environmental tragedy. Given the unfortunate nature of this preventable occurrence, one can only hope that lessons will be learned going forward.