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Equipment is seen on top of Aliso Canyon, where the ruptured pipe is located. (Photo: Scott L/flickr/cc)

'Volcanic' Porter Ranch Gas Leak May Take Months to Close

According to state officials, safety concerns have slowed down efforts to close gas leak pumping thousands of tons of methane

Nadia Prupis

The gas leak in Porter Ranch, California that has been pumping tens of thousands of kilograms of methane into the air every hour since October 23 may take months to close up, according to state officials.

Thousands of residents in the San Fernando Valley community, roughly 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles, have been forced to relocate due to health problems caused by the fumes—including, in some cases, bleeding eyes and gums.

However, officials recently announced that fixing the broken pipe will take more time than initially planned, with emergency crews unlikely to finish closing it up before March or April due to unexpected safety concerns.

Methane emissions are up to 87 times more polluting than carbon dioxide over a 20-year span. Advocates for the residents warned there could be untold public health consequences, while environmentalists note that the size of the leak, which continues full force, is roughly a quarter of California's total annual methane emissions.

"There is no safety mechanism to protect the public at all from the gas injection wells in Porter Ranch," Patricia Oliver, an attorney for Porter Ranch residents, told the Los Angeles Daily News on Sunday. "The safety valve that should have been at the bottom of the well to prevent [the gas] from migrating up is not present in the wells.... All they had to do was keep a safety valve in place on that well. This massive release of methane shouldn't have happened."

The months-long saga has also compelled some California residents to raise questions about Governor Jerry Brown's personal ties with the Southern California Gas Company (SoCal Gas), which owns the busted well. Brown's sister, Kathleen L. Brown, is a paid member of the company's board. And the governor himself has remained noticeably quiet on the crisis, although his office released a copy of a letter Brown wrote to SoCal Gas criticizing its insufficient response.

"While we are enthused the Governor seems to be aware of the Porter Ranch Gas Leak, we are scratching our heads trying to figure out where he’s been," said Matt Pakucko, president of the San Fernando Valley-based advocacy group Save Porter Ranch, in a statement last month. "He continues to ignore us while this gas leak unravels his reputation as a so-called climate leader."

Earlier efforts to stop the leak were abandoned over safety concerns. Emergency workers originally attempted to pour a blend of water, potassium chloride, and bentonite clay into the ruptured well to close up the hole, but soon realized that the pressure of the methane was too strong for the mixture. According to Jason Marshall, chief deputy director of the California Department of Conservation, the measure was halted over concerns that the resistance could cause further damage to the pipes, worsening the leak.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

SoCal Gas decided to drill two relief wells to intersect SS-25 at its juncture with the capstone. The new wells would feature larger and less obstructed piping for the insertion of the brine and mud. The drawback is that the drilling will take months.

[....] Crews expect to start drilling the second well by Jan. 20, Marshall said, once site preparations are complete. The second well is being drilled in the event that the first one misses its target or is unable to deliver enough brine and mud to stop the leak.

The process will be further slowed by the task of wrangling an above-ground drill rig to reach a seven-inch pipe buried more than 8,000 feet below the surface of Aliso Canyon, which the crews will attempt to stop up by sliding concrete casing into the opening. Altogether, Marshall told the Times, it's "a little like trying to hit a quarter-inch target from the distance of a football field."

Meanwhile, toxic fumes continue pouring into the air surrounding Porter Ranch, which has a population of roughly 30,000 people. According to environmental and public health advocate Erin Brockovich, the crisis is the worst in state history and the biggest chemical poisoning catastrophe since BP's Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

"The enormity of the Aliso Canyon gas leak cannot be overstated," Brockovich wrote earlier this month after visiting Porter Ranch. "Gas is escaping through a ruptured pipe more than 8,000 feet underground, and it shows no sign of stopping. As the pressure from weight on top of the pipe causes the gas to diffuse, it only continues to dissipate across a wider and wider area. According to tests conducted in November by the California Air Resources Board, the leak is spewing 50,000 kilograms of gas per hour—the equivalent to the strength of a volcanic eruption."


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