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Gas Leak At Risk Of Blowout, Attempts To Fix Have Only Made It Worse

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An overhead photo of the site of the gas leak at SoCalGas' Aliso Canyon facility near Porter Ranch (Photo by Earthworks)
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Crews have already attempted to stop the leaking gas well near Porter Ranch seven times, and have only made the situation worse.State regulators say that one, of many, concern that SoCalGas has with the leaking well at their Aliso Canyon Facility is the risk of a blowout, which would leak even more gas into the atmosphere and cause a massive fire at the site. The risk of fire at the site is already so high that watches and cell phones are prohibited out of fear that an electrical spark could ignite the gas.

Things sound pretty ugly at the site, where the last attempt to stop the leak expanded a large crater that has exposed the wellhead and the control valves. According to the L.A. Times, crews began pumping slurry into the well on December 22. Unfortunately, the process only made the situation more unstable. The wellhead began to wobble and the crater grew to 80 feet long and 25 feet deep. "If the wellhead fails, the thing is just going to be full blast," Gene Nelson, a physical sciences professor at Cuesta College, told the Times. "It will be a horrible, horrible problem. The leak rates would go way up."

An attempt on November 13 caused a "geyser" to break through the surface. Prior to what officials called a "blowout to surface" in an internal memo, the gas had typically been seeping through the soil. However, during that attempt, a crew used a heavier slurry mix and the pressure from the gas caused it to gouge a hole around the well. "A large column of gas, aerated mud, and rock formed a geyser around the wellhead," the state observer wrote in a California Department of Conservation memo. "Mud brine also began to flow from around the wellhead fissures." Since that blowout, the state has required an official observer to be at the site every day.

The leak is also exposing residents to abnormally high levels of benzene, a carcinogen that is known to cause leukemia, lung cancer, and anemia. According to the Daily News, benzene levels 8-times the regional average were already detected just days after the leak was discovered, and saw a spike in November, when the leak got worse. Experts say that people should not be immediately concerned, but did find it worrisome. UC Berkeley professor Stephen Rappaport says the chance of developing cancer from the benzene from the Aliso Canyon leak was one-in-a-million, but added, "I wouldn't want it to happen to my daughter."

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In the short term, almost 2,854 households have been relocated by SoCalGas from nearby Porter Ranch, with another 1,759 in the process of moving. Methane itself is harmless, but the mercaptan additive (which gives natural gas its "rotten egg" odor) is causing health problems among residents, such as headaches, nausea, and respiratory problems.

The leak was first found on October 23 and SoCalGas says it can be repaired by March at the earliest.