LOS ANGELES (CN) - With 12,000 Los Angelenos displaced by a massive, continuing leak of methane gas, residents of the northwest San Fernando Valley demanded that the site be shut down, at a Saturday meeting of an administrative law panel.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency last week. Residents of the Porter Ranch neighborhood began complaining of a rotten egg smell on Oct. 23, and engineers have said the leak which originates far underground, could take as long as three more months to fix.
Millions of cubic feet of methane and other toxic chemicals, including benzene, have leaked from the natural gas well at SoCalGas' Aliso Canyon storage field - north of Porter Ranch in the northwest San Fernando Valley. Residents have suffered headaches, nosebleeds, shortness of breath and nausea. Thousands have been evacuated from their homes, two schools have been evacuated, and at least one class action has been filed demanding that the gas company buy the emptied houses.
A Los Angeles City Council estimated that 12,000 people had been displaced by the environmental disaster, during the Saturday morning meeting with an independent administrative law panel at the Granada Hill Charter School.
Maureen Capra, 65, told the panel she had lived in the community for 40 years. Her daughter suffered bloody noses growing up in the house, but the problem ended when she moved to New York.
Now when her daughter and granddaughter come to visit, their noses are "gushing blood," she said. She said she also suffered headaches, asthma and bloody noses.
"It's killing us. Do something, please," Capra said as she wiped tears from her eyes.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District has petitioned the panel - an engineer, an attorney, a doctor, and two public members - to force SoCalGas, which owns the storage fields, to comply with state air-quality rules.
Scores of residents in the packed hall held signs aloft: "Shut. It. All. Down." They want the SCAQMD to go further and order SoCalGas to shut down the Aliso Canyon storage field.
The energy company is already facing at least 20 lawsuits. Residents have complained of headaches, nosebleeds, shortness of breath and nausea.
SoCalGas insists that natural gas is not harmful, though it contains foul smelling odorants used to detect gas leaks.
In statement before the floor was opened to the public, SoCalGas attorney Robert Wyman said the energy company had responded within 24 hours to reports of the leak. He said an attempt to plug or "kill" the well by injecting gas into it in had failed.
"We will not be commenting on these lawsuits in this proceeding," Wyman told the panel, as residents behind him looked on with stony expressions.
They dispute that the chemicals are not harmful, claiming that the odorant methyl mercaptan is toxic. Mercaptans are stinky, irritating chemicals that are found, for example, in the defensive scent glands of skunks.
The residents say that benzene, a carcinogen, also has been detected in the air.
Millions of cubic feet of methane have leaked from the well, according to court documents. The energy company has offered temporary relocation to thousands of Porter Ranch residents and 2,500 households and two schools have been evacuated.
Speaking at the Saturday hearing, Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch Englander said that about 12,000 people have been displaced by the leak.
While SoCalGas has responded to his constituents' complaints, Englander said, he's seen no emergency plan to address the disaster.
"This is beyond gross negligence on behalf of SoCalGas," Englander said.
L.A. County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, also a Republican, aimed his ire at regulators that he said should have done more to foresee the disaster, drawing some of the loudest whoops and cheers from the crowd.
According to Antonovich, regulators were put on notice that safety valves at the site were in a state of disrepair 37 years ago. He said the ruptured well had gone into operation in 1954 and was converted into a gas storage well in 1973.
"Those pipes are 61 years old," Antonovich said.
SoCalGas had told state regulators in 1979 that it would replace the safety valve but later reversed the decision because the problem was not deemed "critical," Antonovich said.
"This is a critical problem. This is a mini-Chernobyl," Antonovich said.
Speaking after Antonovich, Assemblyman Scott Wilk called the gas leak California's "worst catastrophe" since the Northridge Earthquake in 1994.
SoCalGas attorney Wyman told the panel that SoCalGas had offered to install purification systems in more than 3,000 households.
The panel said that if it did not rule on the petition for an order for abatement on Saturday, it would continue the courtlike proceedings to another date.
Chairman and engineer Edward Camarena was joined on the panel by Dr. Clifton Lee, attorney Julie Prussack, and public members Patricia Byrd and David Holtzman.
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