For Porter Ranch Firefighters And Thousands Of Others, The Aliso Gas Leak Is Not Over
Is it over? This massive 2015 gas leak near Porter Ranch we keep writing about?
You might think so -- after all, it's been more than three years since a gas well ruptured at the Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility near Porter Ranch, putting more than 100,000 metric tons of methane and other chemicals into the air.
As of last week, we now know the official root cause of the gas well blowout -- corroded metal walls of a gas well hundreds of feet underground. (Watch this video or read the report.)
And the civil complaints brought by Los Angeles city and county and the state of California have been settled, with Southern California Gas Company promising to pay millions of dollars and perform environmental remediation. Also resolved was the criminal case brought by the L.A. County District Attorney -- SoCal Gas pleaded no contest and paid millions more in penalties.
So, you might well think that most of the big questions around that environmental disaster have been answered.
You would be wrong.
NEARLY 400 LAWSUITS ARE STILL PENDING
More than 48,000 plaintiffs have filed about 400 lawsuits against SoCal Gas seeking compensation for alleged physical and financial damage.
One of them is Dan Mehterian, who retired from Los Angeles City Fire Department as an engineer after 33 years of service. He's one of 65 firefighters or firefighter family members who sued SoCal Gas alleging that the gas made them sick, and that the company misled them and the public about the hazard.
He and a number of the attorneys who represent the thousands of plaintiffs suing SoCal Gas gathered on Monday near the gates of the Aliso Canyon gas field on Sesnon Boulevard in Porter Ranch. They were there to respond to the root cause report's new details and to remind the public that many open questions about the gas well blowout still lack answers.
FIREFIGHTERS WORKED IN THE MIDST OF THE GASSED COMMUNITY
Mehterian worked at Fire Station 28, in the heart of the Porter Ranch and Northridge neighborhoods overrun with the stinky smell of natural gas, which flowed from the ruptured well from late October 2015 through mid-February 2016.
The firefighters worked shifts of 24 hours on, 24 hours off, but some would work multiple days in a row to fill in staffing gaps. So they lived and breathed the odor and whatever chemicals were coming out of the well in addition to the 99 percent that was methane.
"We had a lot of people coming to the station asking us what the health risks were," Mehterian said. "And we couldn't figure that out and we couldn't get any information."
So the firefighters of Station 28 pressured their managers to get them some facts, and officials of L.A. County and SoCal Gas came to speak to them.
"We asked the question, 'What is in the natural gas? Is there anything hazardous?' They continued to repeat, 'No, there's nothing in there, it's just natural gas, everything is fine,'" Mehterian said. "And at that point a lot of us were getting sick. Equilibrium problems, headaches, nosebleeds."
Some of the firefighters got physical exams from their doctors, and bloodwork, he said. "They found our blood chemistry was way off, and they couldn't understand why," until they told the doctors they were working in Porter Ranch amid the gas leak fumes and chemical exposure.
"As I explained to them, they would just nod their head, and say, 'Yeah, this makes sense.'"
MYSTERY: WHAT WAS IN THE GAS?
One element of the firefighters' complaint is that they don't know what, exactly, they were exposed to and hence, the physical risks they face from living and working for so long amid the gas.
Even after Friday's release of the independent investigation into the root causes of the gas leak, the composition of the gas remains a mystery, said attorney Patricia Oliver, who represents the firefighters.
"From the beginning, the most important question the residents of Porter Ranch have asked is what was in the gas that came down the mountains into their homes," Oliver said. "When my clients ask me, 'What was in the gas?' I don't know."
SoCal Gas has long insisted that natural gas is mostly methane and that the bad smell came from a chemical odorant called mercaptans that is added as a safety measure to make the gas detectable.
The gas the company injects into the depleted oil field, which acts as an underground reservoir, has been shipped in from out of state on big pipelines. It's been cleaned several times and its components are mostly methane with a small amount of other chemicals.
But the depleted oil field also holds the native gas that has existed for eons below the surface of the earth. That gas remained even after wells had removed much of the oil, and had not been stripped of harmful or cancer-causing chemicals.
"You're going to have massively higher levels of benzene," she said.
She said a bill by Sen. Henry Stern, SB 463, would require SoCal Gas to provide a complete list of the chemicals that go into gas wells, and provide the chemical composition of the gas and any impurities.
"We need to peel this onion back and understand what was in the gas once and for all so that I can answer my client's questions," Oliver said.
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