Calif. residents relieved after gas company plugs 'horrifying' leak

Southern California Gas Co announced Thursday that workers have plugged the natural gas leak that had been spewing methane fumes for the past four months.

Pete Dronkers/Earthworks/AP/File
The relief well at the Aliso Canyon facility above the Porter Ranch area of Los Angeles is seen from overhead, Dec. 17. The utility says it has stopped the natural gas leak near Los Angeles after nearly 4 months.

The company responsible for the massive gas leak near Los Angeles that, at its peak, spewed up to a quarter of California’s methane emissions stopped it Thursday for the first time in four months.

While the well has yet to be permanently sealed and inspected by state regulators – a process that could take several days – nearby residents greeted the news with a sigh of relief.

“I want to get back to life as I knew it as soon as possible,” said Vicky Walker, who stayed in hotels every few days to avoid the foul stench of gas. She told The Associated Press that she had developed a persistent cough and gained at least five pounds since the leak began last fall.

“It’s been horrible,” she said. “You want the adjective? It’s been horrifying.”

Thursday’s announcement by Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) means life could finally return to normal for Ms. Walker and the other residents of the Porter Ranch community in the San Fernando Valley. The leak, which was first reported on Oct. 23, caused at least two schools to close and 6,400 families to leave their homes.

Fearful that the intermittent odor was harming their health, people blamed the leak for nosebleeds, nausea, and headaches. Public health officials have linked the reported symptoms to an odorant added to gas so it can be detected and have said they don't expect long-term health effects.

Yet the leak at the largest underground gas storage facility in the West did have significant effects on the environment by releasing huge amounts of climate-altering methane emissions. Some observers labeled it the worst environmental disaster since the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) declared it an emergency.

The leak is expected to cost SoCalGas $250 to $300 million, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. That figure could increase significantly because it doesn’t include penalties from government agencies, expenses to mitigate pollution, and potential damages from more than 65 lawsuits.

Some Porter Ranch residents greeted the news that the leak had been controlled for the first time with skepticism. They were fearful of returning to unhealthy homes or a repeat incident.

"Because this one well we know about is shut down, it doesn't indicate anything about the rest of the facility," said Matt Pakucko, president of Save Porter Ranch, a group advocating to shutter the Aliso Canyon storage facility. "People are terrified to go home."

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

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