LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com/AP) — California state officials on Wednesday cleared the way for resumption of natural gas pumping into an underground storage facility where a blowout spewed methane for nearly four months, sickening Los Angeles residents and driving thousands of families from their homes.
State engineering and safety enforcement experts concluded the Aliso Canyon facility “is safe to operate and can reopen at a greatly reduced capacity in order to protect public safety and prevent an energy shortage in Southern California,” according to a joint statement from the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources and the California Public Utilities Commission.
However, the vast field will be restricted to about 28 percent of its capacity. Regulators said that’s just enough to ensure that the LA area doesn’t have an energy shortage any time soon.
“[The facility] hasn’t been needed at all and to be refilling it now is absolutely nuts and we’ve gotta stop this. We’re going to keep fighting and we’re going to get it shut down,” said Chatsworth resident Richard Matthews.
The decision follows repairs that the Southern California Gas Co. had to make to meet stricter new regulations put in place after the leak crippled Aliso Canyon, which is the biggest natural storage facility west of the Mississippi River.
The October 2015 blowout led to the largest-known release of methane in the U.S. and widespread complaints of nosebleeds, nausea, headaches and other symptoms that persisted even after the leak was capped a year ago.
Angry residents and several advocacy groups want the facility nestled in the mountains above the San Fernando Valley permanently shuttered. They had asked the state not allow a re-start until a pending investigation finds the leak’s cause.
Alexandra Nagy of Food and Water Watch, a group calling for the facility to be shut down for good, said she was surprised by the decision to reopen.
“I think it’s absolutely ludicrous that they’re claiming this facility is safe,” she said. “From my perspective this facility will never be safe.”
She said her group is looking at their options to challenge the reopening.
“This is Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration selling out Los Angeles communities for SoCal gas profits,” she said.
Wednesday evening an impromptu protest of area homeowners started. KCAL 9’s Andrea Fujii spoke to some of the angry residents.
“I’m very upset,” said one woman.
Jane Fowler of Granada Hills said the gas leak — which forced the relocation of more than 7,000 residents — made her dog Missy so sick she had to end up putting her down.
Fowler said health problems continue for her family.
“I don’t have headaches when I go away,” she said, “I don’t have the nausea, like you’re just nauseous all the time.”
The blowout occurred in a well over 60 years old. It was one of 115 wells at a vacant oil field that was converted in the 1970s to store gas a mile-and-a-half underground where crude had been removed.
About a third of the wells have passed a rigorous battery of tests prescribed by the state to inject or withdraw more gas in the mostly empty field. The remaining wells have been taken out of service and must pass state-mandated tests within a year or be permanently sealed.
The company and energy regulators said the field was critical to provide home heating and powering gas-fired electricity plants in the area during energy spikes, though predictions of more than a dozen blackouts last summer never occurred.
Despite all the assurances about safety, residents who live in the area say they want the plant closed.
“These guys are not listening to this community,” said Craig Galanti of Porter Ranch. “This facility is too large, too dangerous to be this close to a populous area.”
The blowout had cost SoCalGas more than $760 million with most of that going to relocate the more than 7,000 families and paying their expenses for several months. The company expects to recoup most of that from insurance.
Costs have also included a $4 million settlement with Los Angeles County prosecutors after the company pleaded no contest to a criminal charge for failing to quickly report the blowout. It also agreed to pay local air pollution regulators $8.5 million to settle a lawsuit, which includes $1 million for a study of health effects.
The company still faces more than 200 lawsuits and could still be fined from several regulatory agencies.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)