Uncontrolled Gas Leak Hits L.A. Community

     LOS ANGELES (CN) - Natural gas leaking from a Southern California Gas storage facility for more than a month is filling a San Fernando Valley community with dangerous chemicals and noxious odors and making people sick, a class action claims in superior court.
     William Gandsey sued SoCal Gas and Sempra Energy on Monday, claiming that he and other residents of Porter Ranch are suffering from exposure to "gas and other pollutants being uncontrollably released into the atmosphere around their homes, parks and schools."
     The gas company discovered the leak on Oct. 23 at its Aliso Canyon storage facility, in the Santa Susana Mountains near Northridge. It is the largest of four natural gas storage fields owned by SoCal Gas in Southern California.
     "Since the start of the natural gas leak, the Southern California Air Quality Management District has logged 499 odor complaints from residents in the area surrounding the Aliso Canyon facility," the complaint states. "Complaints have included negative health impacts, including nausea, dizziness, vomiting, shortness of breathy, nosebleed and headaches."
     The leak is in a pipe casing a few hundred feet below the surface of an 8,500-foot-deep well. SoCal Gas unsuccessfully tried to plug the leak and says it will need to drill a new relief well to seal it - which could take several months, Gandsey says in the complaint.
     The utility company said on its website that it has "assembled a world-class team of experts" and is "working as quickly as will allow to stop the leak." SoCal apologized for the unpleasant odor, but said the leak "does not pose an imminent threat to public safety."
     "The well is located in an isolated, mountain area more than a mile away from and more than 1,200 feet higher than the closest home or public area. Scientists agree natural gas is not toxic and that its odorant is harmless at the minute levels at which it is added to natural gas," the company said.
     However, the California Air Resources Board said Friday that the well has been leaking about 50,000 kilograms of methane per hour: one-fourth of all methane emissions in the state. The estimate came from samples taken from airplanes flying through the plume of gas in early November.
     Methane is a greenhouse gas that absorbs about twice as much heat as carbon dioxide.
     SoCal Gas spokesman Jaime Mendoza told radio station KPCC on Monday that Los Angeles County Department of Public Health ordered the company to bear the cost of relocating families who request it, and that about 30 families in Porter Ranch have been relocated.
     Porter Ranch is a wealthy community of about 31,000 in the northwest San Fernando Valley.
     In an emergency order on Nov. 18, state Oil and Gas Supervisor Steven Bohlen told SoCal Gas to provide the state with all its testing results, data and written plans for the leak. The order was issued "to ensure that all necessary steps are taken to prevent damage to life, health, property, or natural resources," according to the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources.
     Gandsey says in his lawsuit that the residents of Porter Ranch "have borne the brunt of the uncontrolled release of natural gas and other pollutants into the atmosphere."
     In addition to methane, air testing has revealed the presence of benzene - a carcinogen - as well as toluene, hydrogen sulfides and sulfur dioxide, Gandsey says.
     "But most significantly, plaintiff and the class members are being harmed by the odors caused by the mercaptans being emitted from the natural gas leak. These harms include suffering from nausea, dizziness, vomiting, shortness of breath, and headaches," the complaint states.
     Mercaptans are volatile chemicals added to natural gas to give it a skunky smell. In fact, skunks' defensive spray is loaded with mercaptans, an industrial chemist told Courthouse News. Failing to add mercaptans to the natural gas would be no solution, the chemist said, because then the odorless gas would be undetectable to the average citizen, with unpredictable results.
     Gandsey's attorney, Richard McCune with McCuneWright, told Courthouse News his firm will seek expedited discovery.
     "We're going to ask the court to immediately give us some discovery on the exposure levels and what [the residents] are being exposed to, as well as the health implications. These people just don't have the time to wait around for the normal discovery phase to see what they are being exposed to," McCune said.
     Gandsey seeks damages for negligence and public and private nuisance.
     SoCal Gas spokesman Mendoza said the company does not comment on pending litigation.