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12 Jan, 2016 05:02

'This is a mini-Chernobyl': LA County supervisor on California methane leak

'This is a mini-Chernobyl': LA County supervisor on California methane leak

The California gas company responsible for the storage site where methane has been leaking from a damaged well for over two months has promised action to stop the breach, while a Los Angeles County supervisor has branded the situation a “mini-Chernobyl.”

SoCal Gas said it was working on a plan to siphon off and safely burn some of the leaking methane, a crisis which has led to months of protests and the displacement of thousands of families in the Los Angeles County community of Porter Ranch. The gas has also leaked into homes and schools.

“SoCalGas is developing a system designed to capture and control a portion of the natural gas leaking from the well,” a spokeswoman said in an email on Sunday, according to The Guardian.

The operation is designed to reduce, but not eliminate, the leak, the company added.

“The design calls for a pipe to be installed in the area of the gas flow to capture a portion of the leaking gas and then carry it to separate units that will remove the fluids from the gas and then either incinerate it or filter the odorant out of it,” SoCal Gas stated.

The company would not say when the equipment would be installed, or how much gas could ultimately be burned or captured. It said in an email that the system was designed to burn up to 20 million standard cubic feet of gas.

The statement from SoCal Gas comes just days after the leak prompted California Governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency. The breach has steadily sent 62 million cubic feet of methane gas into the air every day since October 23, according to an estimate from the Environmental Defense Fund. Methane is 80 times more potent as a warming agent than carbon dioxide.

The declaration called for SoCal Gas to maximize the amount of natural gas being removed from the facility, capture leaks while relief wells are being built, and to identify how the company will stop the leak if relief wells don’t fix the problem, or if the existing leak gets worse.

Since first being noticed by workers at Aliso Canyon, the location of the storage site, repeated attempts to stop the leakage have proved unsuccessful, leaving gas billowing downhill into Porter Ranch, where some 30,000 people live.

At a public hearing over the weekend, scientists, campaign groups, and residents of Porter Ranch said the gas company and California authorities had been slow to recognize the magnitude of the problem, or warn the public of potential dangers.

“This is a mini-Chernobyl,” Mike Antonovich, the LA county supervisor, told the assembly, according to The Guardian.

Public health officials are concerned about the potential health effects of benzene, a known carcinogen that is added to gas in order to help detect leaks when they occur.

“For about the first three weeks of November, there were levels of benzene being sampled in the community that were considerably higher than expected in the LA basin, and were likely to be higher than the government exposure level for eight-hour exposure,” Michael Jerrett, the chair of UCLA’s environmental health sciences department, told The Guardian.

On November 10, the company recorded benzene levels nearly six times higher than the safe limits for an exposure period over eight hours, the scientist said.

If it was just two or three days, it would be one thing,” he said. “It made me think there were longer periods of time where these exposure levels were present.”

On Monday, state senator Fran Pavley said the older natural gas wells at Aliso Canyon should be shut down until state officials and an outside agency could verify that they didn’t pose a risk to public health. She has introduced a bill to enforce such a plan, reported The Los Angeles Times.

Of Aliso Canyon’s 111 gas storage wells, 48 were drilled before 1953, according to Pavley’s office. The leaking well was installed in 1953 as an oil well and converted to a gas storage well in 1973.

The Los Angeles city attorney’s office filed a civil lawsuit against SoCal over the gas leak last month. Los Angeles County also signed onto the case on Monday, according to the LA Times.