‘The Buck Stops With Me’: SoCal Gas President Apologizes For Porter Ranch Gas Leak

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — The president of Southern California Gas Co. apologized Tuesday to Porter Ranch residents for a gas leak discovered more than a month ago that has yet to be contained.

He also said the company will drill a relief well to allow the utility to permanently cap the leaking tank.

“I’m sorry. To the residents of Porter Ranch, I’m sorry, because although we worked hard to try and communicate with you what was going on, to provide you with accurate and timely information, we fell short,” Dennis Arriola said during a Los Angeles City Council meeting. “We fell short of your expectations and quite frankly ours as well.”

“The buck stops with me as the leader of SoCalGas,” he said.

Arriola said after his presentation that he was also “sorry for the health effects” experienced by some residents that have been linked to mercaptan, an additive used to help people detect the presence of the normally odor-less methane.

The leak was discovered Oct. 23 by crews at the utility’s Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility near Northridge and Porter Ranch. Utility officials initially said the issue would be resolved in a few days or weeks but they have so far been unsuccessful.

Arriola said it could take up to three to four months to drill a “relief well” that would aid efforts to “permanently seal the well.”

He declined to give estimates for how much gas has been released, saying that “after this is all complete,” the gas company will conduct an “accurate and transparent and fact-based measurement of the gas that was released from the incident (so) that we better understand the overall impact of the environment.”

State regulators estimate that the leaked gas amounts to about 25 percent of daily emissions in the state, or the equivalent of emissions from 160,000 cars being driven over a year.

Arriola said the gas company plans to begin drilling the relief well later this week, and he promised to provide regular and detailed updates.

The utility is also looking into other technologies to reduce the amount of gas being released into the atmosphere, Arriola said.

The solutions include re-attaching pipes to collect the gas and reducing the pressure inside the gas storage reservoir so there is less gas leaking out of the well, he said.

The utility is also providing air-filtration devices to area schools, and setting up a storefront where Porter Ranch residents can learn more about the leak, he said.

SoCalGas has been providing free, temporary relocation to any affected residents, with at least 280 families already moved, and another 700 households in the process of being relocated.

Jimmy Cho, the company’s senior vice president of gas operations, said the delay in stopping the leak was partly due to having to wait for equipment to arrive from Louisiana, then spending a week to set up for the drilling of the relief well.

Windy conditions also make it more dangerous, since it could cause fires to ignite if natural gas got into the equipment.

He said initial efforts using “standard” methods to “kill the well” also failed.

“We know there is a leak somewhere in the existing well,” Cho said. “We’ve made six attempts to kill it with traditional methods and fluids very aggressively.”

After outside experts were brought in, the company decided to move forward with drilling the relief well 8,000 feet down, in order to get close to the bottom of the well. This will allow the company to intercept and directly access the well, then “inject heavy fluids” and pour in cement to seal it, Cho said.

“There is no goal here to try and save or salvage this well,” he said. “We are going to permanently abandon it once we stop the flow of gas,” he said.

County health officials said last week that about 660 residents have complained of a rotten-egg smell in the area, with some reporting symptoms such as nosebleeds, headaches and nausea.

SoCalGas and public health officials have said the leak of methane does not pose a threat because the gas dissipates outdoors and is coming from a site over a mile away from — and more than 1,200 feet higher than — homes or public areas.

Councilman Mitch Englander, whose district includes the Porter Ranch neighborhood, asked utility officials to appear before the council. Last week, he also joined City Attorney Mike Feuer in calling for an investigation into the matter.

Englander said after hearing the utility’s presentation, he was “less confident” than before about the leak, saying that the odor and health problems reported by Porter Ranch residents should not be dismissed as just a “quality of life” issue.

Some residents and an environmental group called for SoCalGas to shut down the Aliso Canyon storage facility, and questioned assurances that mercaptan would cause only minimal health problems.

The state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources has assigned its top engineers and staff to monitor and provide assistance on the gas leak site, according to the regulatory agency’s supervisor, Steve Bohlen.

“Some of our top people are there, interacting with the company, asking questions, challenging their approaches and making sure that things are being done safely, things are being done as quickly as possible,” Bohlen said.

The gas leak has also prompted citations from the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

The agency sent a “notice to comply” on Nov. 5 calling on the company to address the leak, and on Nov. 23, it issued a “notice of violation” for the “public nuisance” of the ongoing leak, according to the agency’s deputy executive officer, Mohsen Nazemi.

Nazemi said the agency will be reviewing SoCalGas’ plan to use Odex, a suppressant to remove the mercaptan odor, to ensure it does not pose a health hazard.

He added that another concern with the plan to use an odor suppressant is that it would take away a “safety component” used in natural gas to let people know whether there is enough gas in the air to cause an ignition.

Odex is typically used at landfills and excavation projects, and not so much on gas leaks, Nazemi said.

A county health official warned against characterizing reactions to the leak as “discomfort or disruption,” and urged that the symptoms be seen as “health effects.”

“The neurological issues, the gastrointestinal issues like nausea and vomiting, stomach discomfort, and the respiratory issues such as shortness of breath, are all real health symptoms,” said Cyrus Rangan, director of the Los Angeles County Public Health Department’s Toxics Epidemiology Program.

Rangan said people who have chronic illnesses such as asthma and lung or heart disease could see their conditions exacerbated when exposed to the leak.

(©2015 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Wire services contributed to this report.)

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