LOS ANGELES (CN) - California state senators and community members gathered near the site of the massive Aliso Canyon gas leak on Monday to announce proposed emergency and long-term legislative action to respond to the environmental crisis.
Speaking at the entrance to the Southern California Gas natural gas storage field, state Sen. Fran Pavley - a Democrat who represents the thousands in the Porter Ranch community impacted by the methane gas leak - said that urgent action is required to combat a leak reported on Oct. 23. Monday's gathering of legislators is the latest action after Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency this past week.
The California Senate's package of four bills calls for polluters to foot the bill for damages and an immediate moratorium on new natural gas injections and the use of aging wells to store the gas.
Pavely said that lawmakers are introducing the legislation to make sure "this kind of tragedy won't happen again."
"We're here on behalf of the people who live and work in Porter Ranch ensuring that they can return to their homes or their businesses and have a safe place to live. This is a challenge, it is a tragedy and I know we can do better," Pavely said.
More than 2,500 homes have been evacuated since residents began complaining of a foul odor in October. LA city council member Mitch Englander says that 12,000 individuals have been displaced by the leak.
Residents in the San Fernando Valley community of 30,000 have complained of nosebleeds, headaches, dizziness and nausea.
SoCalGas insists that natural gas is not harmful, though it contains foul-smelling odorants used to detect gas leaks. The company is offering temporary relocation to Porter Ranch residents, and has offered to install plug-in air purifiers in 3,000 residences.
On its website, SoCalGas says that as of this past Saturday it had drilled to depth of almost 6,600 feet to create a relief well. The energy company says it plans to intercept the well and then pump in heavy mud and fluids to plug it.
At its peak, the 61-year-old well was leaking pollution comparable to daily emission of 7 million cars or six coal-fired power plants. The natural gas storage field provides energy to 21 million people.
As winds swept around him at the SoCalGas' facility in Northridge Monday, Senate President pro tem Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, told reporters the urgency of the problem cannot be "overstated."
"There is no question that this is a significant setback with regards to the harmful emissions into our air as well as into our atmosphere. And not just here locally but throughout the state of California" de Leon said. "Not only has the ongoing leakage of methane pollution air disrupted the lives of residents here in Porter Ranch, it also threatens to undermine our efforts at a statewide level."
There are 13 other underground methane gas storage plants in the state that are close to urban areas in Montebello, West Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay area, according to the state. More than half of 420 gas storage wells are over 40 years old.
48 of 111 natural gas wells at Aliso Canyon were drilled in 1953, before the area became home to residential development.
The state senate's package includes long-term measures that will give regulators more power to prevent a similar disaster, including the introduction of new subsurface safety valves.
State legislators will set targets to reduce pollution, including provisions to cut black-carbon emissions by half, as well as reduce methane and fluorinated gases by 40 percent by 2030.
De Leon said the package requires a two-thirds majority vote in both the assembly and the senate to pass and will require bipartisan support.
A bill is being drafted and should be publicly available within a week. Emergency measures would go into effect immediately, while longer-term provisions would become law in early 2017, de Leon said.
Many Porter Ranch residents want lawmakers to go further and are demanding that SoCalGas shut down the San Fernando Valley facility. They made their feelings known before an independent administrative law panel on Saturday.
Save Porter Ranch President and co-founder Matt Pakucko said before the press conference that the legislation was a "great start," but wondered why laws had not been passed decades before.
Pakucko, a music engineer and producer, added that he believed the storage field should be shut down "at least temporarily" until the problem was solved and in the long term should be moved, he said.
Pakucko lives two blocks away from the site and said that he had been relocated to a house in Northridge with his girlfriend and five cats. He said that the whole family and as well as his pets had experienced nosebleeds, extreme fatigue, aches and pains and breathing problems.
"People keep saying 'Oh, SoCalGas provided your housing.' No. SoCalGas was mandated to give us housing. They did not choose to give us anything," Pakucko said. "The only thing they have done is react to the public and react to the problem. They've done nothing proactive."
Pakucko said that on Oct. 24 he walked out of his house and was hit by a "wall of gas I could not believe" and an "overwhelming smell."
"It's the smell where you would go into house and open the door and you had your oven on for three days," Pakucko said. "You don't go in, you don't flip a switch you don't even use your phone. You get away. You call 911 and you call the gas company to see what's going on."
On other occasions he smelled petroleum and added that other residents had complained of a solvent-like odor.
Pakucko said that one day the pollution was so severe he could barely catch his breath. At that point, he said, he decided to leave the area and moved to hotel a few days before Thanksgiving.
"Shut it down forever," Pakucko said.
The LA city attorney's office on Monday announced that Los Angeles County had joined the city's action against SoCalGas. There are currently 20 lawsuits pending against the company.
"LA County joining our suit is an important development in our continued push to end this disaster, get relief for residents and ensure nothing like this happens again," said City Attorney Mike Feuer.
State Sens. Ben Allen and Bob Huff, Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council President Paula Cracium and Alex Kim from the group Save Porter Ranch also spoke at the press conference.
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