LOS ANGELES (CN) - Regulators have ordered SoCalGas to reduce pollution from a massive, three-month-old methane gas leak in the LA area that is emitting hundreds of tons of greenhouse gases each day.
An independent hearing board on Saturday voted unanimously to adopt the South Coast Air Quality Management District recommendations and issue a stipulated order of abatement after a hearing at the Hilton in Woodland Hills. Those proceedings followed three weeks of hearings where officials heard testimony from over 110 residents and officials.
"As a result of this order, SoCalGas must take immediate steps to minimize air pollution and odors from its leaking well and stop the leak as quickly as possible," district executive officer Barry Wallerstein said. "It also will require the utility to thoroughly inspect all other wells at its Aliso Canyon storage facility to help prevent another major leak in the future."
The district's order asks for around-the-clock monitoring of the well with an infrared camera for 30 days after the well is sealed, daily air-monitoring data, and the creation of a leak-detection program for all 115 wells.
To minimize the leak, the proposed order demands that SoCalGas cease all gas injection at the storage field until the well is sealed.
The district is asking SoCalGas to study the health impacts of the leaks on communities' exposure to foul-smelling odorants added to methane including tertiary butyl mercaptan and tetrahydrothiophen. Residents in the area have complained of nose bleeds, nausea, dizziness, aches, pains and fatigue.
SoCalGas, however, cannot use odor suppressants or neutralizers to reduce the foul smelling odorants added to natural gas unless the district approves their use, the district said in a statement.
District spokesman Sam Atwood said the hearing board will make the final order publicly available later this week.
Residents of the Porter Ranch community said the order does not go far enough. In a joint statement, Save Porter Ranch, Food and Water Watch, and the Sierra Club said the order "fails to adequately protect residents of the surrounding communities."
"This is an ongoing disappointment and no one is managing this crisis situation. Without strong leadership from Gov. [Jerry] Brown, state agencies are passing the buck and letting SoCalGas continue to pollute the air and poison our communities," Save Porter Ranch president Matt Pakucko - who has been displaced by the leak - said. "Brown needs to step in immediately to require the continued withdrawal of gas from Aliso Canyon until the field reaches equilibrium and is shut down."
Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune called the air district's action a "failure" and urged the governor to take action to end the environmental disaster.
"There should be no other choice but to shut down the dangerous Aliso Canyon facility and look to close every urban oil and gas facility throughout California and our country, to ensure the health of our communities and that our climate is never again sacrificed for corporate-polluter profits," Brune said.
Officials will hold a follow-up hearing on Feb. 20 in San Fernando Valley to review the status of the order.
The order is effective until Jan. 31, 2017, unless the panel modifies the order or SoCalGas meets the requirements sooner.
This month, Brown declared a state of emergency and the California state Senate introduced a bill for an immediate moratorium on any new injections of natural gas and use of aging wells at the facility.
Dozens of lawsuit have been filed in the wake of the leak, including court actions by the city and county of Los Angeles.
Residents first complained about the leak at the SoCalGas' Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in Northridge on Oct. 23
At its peak, the SS-25 well was spewing pollution comparable to daily emissions of 7 million cars or six coal-fired power plants. About 1,200 tons of greenhouse-gas pollution is being released into the atmosphere per day, according to court records.
The Aliso Canyon facility provides energy to 21 million people and 500 communities and has the capacity for 86 billion cubic feet of natural gas. Of the 115 natural gas wells at Aliso, 48 were drilled in 1953.
SoCalGas insists the gas is not harmful. The company is offering temporary relocation to the thousands of Porter Ranch residents, and has offered to install plug-in air purifiers to families who choose to stay.
By some estimates, 12,000 people have been displaced by the leak. According to SoCalGas, 3,226 households have been relocated and another 1,563 are finalizing arrangements to relocate.
SoCalGas began drilling a relief well to stop the leak on Dec. 4, 2015, and said last week that the project advancing ahead of schedule. The well should be sealed by late February or sooner, the company said.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.