As we ring in 2016, nearly 2,500 residents of Porter Ranch, a suburban community in Los Angeles, still can’t return to their homes. The massive natural gas leak —really, more of a blowout—detected at the Aliso Canyon underground storage facility on October 23, 2015 continues to spew 110,000 pounds of methane gas every day. Not only is the gas hazardous to residents’ health, but methane is a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide, making the leak a full-fledged climate disaster. The facility operator, Sempra subsidiary SoCal Gas, has failed to take the necessary steps to stop the leak and protect residents and our climate. On January 6, 2016 – day 75 of the disaster – California Governor Jerry Brown finally declared a state of emergency.
Food & Water Watch has been fighting since day one alongside community group Save Porter Ranch and local residents to demand information and accountability. We will continue to stand with the community not only until the leak is stopped — which, by all reports, will be at least several more months — but until Governor Brown protects public health and safety, and the climate, by shutting down the Aliso Canyon Storage Facility for good.
Exposing the Leak – And Its Health Impacts
From the start, SoCalGas has laid a tough road for the community. First, the utility denied the leak’s existence for three days after its discovery by local fire officials, even as residents complained about the strong smell of gas. Only organized pressure — community meetings, door-to-door visits, protests and media attention — forced SoCalGas to admit its facility had sprung a leak and to notify the health department and elected officials.
Then SoCalGas lied about the health impacts of the leak, claiming that the gas residents were breathing was non-toxic and dissipated quickly. But within a week of exposure to the gas leak, residents were reporting nausea, nosebleeds, headaches, rashes, shortness of breath, burning eyes, sore throats, sick pets and more. Food & Water Watch worked with Save Porter Ranch to collect informal health surveys in the community. We exposed methyl mercaptan, the odorant that gives gas the rotten egg smell, as a toxin. We organized call-in days to the County Department of Public Health and elected officials to report health problems.
On November 13, three weeks after the leak was first detected, an oily mist spewed from the gas well after one of many failed attempts by SoCalGas to kill the well. SoCalGas sent a robocall to the community telling them to stay indoors. Teachers kept the kids inside at school. Residents were terrified to be quarantined in their homes. We alerted local media and made even more calls about the health impacts.
The pressure worked: as the leak approached the one-month mark, the County Department of Public Health acknowledged that mercaptan was causing health problems. It ordered SoCalGas to provide free relocation assistance for anyone who requested it.
Uncovering Aliso Canyon Storage Facility’s Aging, Deteriorating Wells
On the 30th day of the leak, we held a large protest at a busy intersection in Porter Ranch to demand an investigation by all local and state agencies into the misconduct of SoCalGas and the gas leak. In the following weeks, several city and county agencies launched investigations. The City of Los Angeles even sued SoCalGas for causing harm to community health and the climate.
Food & Water Watch helped uncover critical information that prompted these investigations. At hearings we demonstrated that SoCalGas knew its wells were aging and deteriorating at an increased rate. We exposed that there have been many well failures at this storage field in the past.
We showed that SoCalGas has done nothing to keep its wells in good working condition and has let one of the largest climate disasters in California history unfold without any equipment on site to stop it.
Governor Brown Needs to Shut It Down
While action at the city and county level has been strong, for 74 days, the State of California did almost nothing to protect residents and the climate from this ongoing disaster, which has displaced thousands of people from their homes and continues to dump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
After more than two months, on January 6, Governor Brown finally declared a State of Emergency in Porter Ranch. Contrast this with the Santa Barbara oil spill last spring: the governor took just one day to declare that an emergency. We’re glad that he at least heeded the calls of local officials and residents to act on Aliso Canyon, but his slow response was likely more than an accidental oversight: a report by the Public Accountability Institute revealed that his sister, Kathleen Brown, sits on the board of Sempra. SoCalGas has also donated generously to the Governor’s election campaigns.
So, while he did the right thing by declaring a State of Emergency in Porter Ranch, Governor Brown continues to disappoint Californians. He calls himself a climate leader but continues to actively support oil and gas extraction and infrastructure in the Golden State. He’s expanded fracking in California, greenhouse gas emissions have gone up during his administration, and now he could be letting family ties get between him and protecting Porter Ranch residents and the climate.
The proof will be in the pudding. Residents of Porter Ranch are not safe as long as the facility continues to operate. In 2016, we'll continue our work with Porter Ranch and Los Angeles to urge Governor Brown to shut down the Aliso Canyon Storage Facility — a first step toward a transition off fossil fuels to to 100 percent real clean energy.