OCT 28, 2016 5:15 AM PDT

Flashback: one year since the Aliso Canyon methane leak


It happened over one year ago, and yet we are still feeling the consequences. It was on October 23, 2015, that SoCalGas discovered the ruptured gas well known as SS-25 leaking from its 3,600 Aliso Canyon Storage Facility north of Porter Ranch, California, among the nation’s largest underground gas storage fields. By the time Southern California Gas Co. managed to plug the ruptured well four months later at its Aliso Canyon gas storage field, nearly 100,000 metric tons of methane had escaped over Los Angeles — making it the largest atmospheric release in U.S. history.
 
Aliso Canyon, as seen from above. Photo: LA Times
 
The 112-day leak generated thousands of complaints of gas-related illnesses, forced thousands of residents to evacuate from their homes for months, temporarily closed two schools and impacted businesses and property values throughout the region. It was the largest environmental disaster since the 1994 Northridge earthquake and triggered local and state criminal charges, hundreds of lawsuits against SoCalGas and regulations for below-ground natural gas fields. The cost to the utility alone: more than $700 million and rising.

The Aliso Canyon gas leak also raised questions about the nation’s energy infrastructure, with some calling for the shutdown of the storage field. It was a wake-up call for many who had failed to recognize the risks of Aliso Canyon — an aging facility operating under grossly outdated and inadequate standards with the potential to wreak havoc on public health and the environment. About 80% of the facility’s wells were built before the 1970s, and Southern California Gas knew they were corroding and failing at an increasing rate. But there were no rules mandating frequent inspections or upgrades. What’s more, government officials didn’t seem sufficiently concerned that the state’s energy supply had become so heavily dependent on Aliso Canyon.

“Part of the legacy of the leak is that here, and across the nation, gas storage facilities will be (more) as safe as a result,” said Paula Cracium, president of a Porter Ranch Community Advisory Committee on the discharge, who works for Shepherd Church, a megachurch in Porter Ranch. “We were blissfully ignorant of what was going on up there — how many leaks were happening, how it operated.
 

 
The good news is that the Aliso Canyon crisis kick-started investments and planning that should make Southern California less dependent on natural gas in the years ahead. Local utilities have spent tens of millions of dollars in recent months on energy-efficiency programs to help cut demand for electricity and gas. Pushed by the California Public Utilities Commission, both Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric signed contracts for energy storage projects that could be ready for the winter. The challenge of solar, wind and other renewable energy sources is they can only supply electricity when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. But the development of large-scale batteries that could hold that green power would reduce the need for some natural gas power plants.

The gas company is now awaiting safety test results from seven wells at Aliso Canyon before state agencies can allow gas to be pumped back into the field. To date, 28 storage wells have passed all tests, according to state regulators, with the remaining wells either plugged, taken out of service or sealed off from the storage reservoir until further testing. New laws demand the field be certified as safe before it can reopen. A public hearing next year will discuss the feasibility of closure. SoCalGas issued a statement last week saying it had installed more than 40 miles of steel pipe into old wells, in accord with a state safety review. However, many residents have called upon officials to shut Aliso Canyon down. There have been four major leaks at the storage field since the big one, environmental activists say, and an average two minor leaks each day.

“Until facilities like this are not allowed near our communities,” said Los Angeles Councilman Mitch Englander, who represents the area, “disasters like Aliso Canyon will always be a possibility.”
“This community has been fighting for a year to hold the gas company accountable for the disaster that they caused — the gas blowout,” said Alex Nagy, a community organizer for Food and Water Watch, an environmental group. “People are still getting sick in their homes. We still need a long-term health study. We still need people’s homes cleaned of residue. We still need the decommissioning of this facility.”

Sources: LA Daily News, LA Times
 
About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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