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Eight years after disastrous Aliso Canyon gas leak, residents still seek answers

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Helen Attai remembers being sick for weeks in the fall of 2015, and blamed her headaches and nose bleeds on the gloomy weather. To fight her symptoms, Attai took long walks on winding trails in the Santa Susana mountains near Aliso Canyon.

Then in January 2016, a few months after the nation’s largest gas leak spewed methane into communities near an underground storage facility owned by SoCalGas, Attai read in a newspaper that Porter Ranch residents near the months-long leak suffered from nosebleeds, headaches and dizziness.

She finally put the two together. “I said: ‘Wait, they have the same symptoms that we’ve been having,” said Attai, a resident of Granada Hills and co-founder of the Aliso Moms Alliance group.

Puzzled why she hadn’t heard from any government agencies about the largest natural gas leak in U.S. history, she picked up the phone and called SoCalGas — owner of the massive underground natural gas storage facility in Aliso Canyon — to find out if her neighborhood in nearby Granada Hills was safe from exposure to the leaking methane.

Their response shocked her.

“They told me ‘You need to evacuate right now,’” she said. “They told me we could be affected.”

Helen Attai, walks near the entrance to the Aliso Canyon gas storage Facility in Porter Ranch, CA, Monday, October 16, 2023. Attai is one of the co-founders of the group known as Aliso Moms Alliance. Six women from the communities adjacent to the Aliso Canyon together six years ago lobbying for the closure of the Aliso Canyon facility and sharing stories of families and children impacted by the 2015 disastrous gas leak. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
Helen Attai, walks near the entrance to the Aliso Canyon gas storage Facility in Porter Ranch, CA, Monday, October 16, 2023. Attai is one of the co-founders of the group known as Aliso Moms Alliance. Six women from the communities adjacent to the Aliso Canyon together six years ago lobbying for the closure of the Aliso Canyon facility and sharing stories of families and children impacted by the 2015 disastrous gas leak. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

The 2015 blowout emitted more than 110,000 metric tons of methane and other chemicals into the air, forcing thousands of families within a five-mile distance to relocate.

Today, eight years after the disastrous leak, Attai still questions why government agencies and elected officials didn’t do more to protect families like hers during and after the devastating gas leak.

Today SoCalGas continues to store, inject and withdraw billions of cubic feet of methane from the field, the second largest natural gas storage facility in the Western U.S. Recently, state officials in Sacramento allowed the gas company to expand its capacity and add more methane to the underground field located in the hills north of Porter Ranch and near schools, homes and kids’ playgrounds.

SoCalGas workers discovered the methane leak in late October of 2015 spewing from an 8,750-foot deep underground well known as SS25. The gushing was so intense that the Federal Aviation Administration ordered a temporary ban on airplane flights over Porter Ranch for safety reasons and then-Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency due to the gas leak.

The following actions by government agencies and elected officials make up the key steps taken since the leak:

  • In 2017, the California Public Utilities Commission, or CPUC, which oversees operations at Aliso Canyon, launched a process to minimize or shut down Aliso Canyon while maintaining energy and electric reliability for the Los Angeles region. Later this year, state regulators allowed SoCalGas to resume partial injections of gas at the Aliso Canyon.
  • In 2019, a judge approved a $120 settlement between SoCalGas, city, county and state officials to fund a $25-million health study and several environmental projects.
  • Nov. 20, 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom sent a letter to CPUC, requesting an independent third-party expert’s advice on a permanent closure of the Aliso Canyon facility.
  • In 2021, SoCalGas and its parent company Sempra Energy agreed to pay up to $1.8 billion to settle the claims of nearly 35,000 victims of the 2015 gas leak (what happened that made 35,000 victims ill or move into hotels.
  • Despite pressure from Gov. Newsom and his predecessor Jerry Brown, state regulators have allowed SoCalGas to expand its capacity several times. On Aug. 23, 2023, state regulators voted unanimously to allow SoCalGas to boost the amount of natural gas the company stores underground in Aliso Canyon to full capacity, citing concerns about energy reliability in the winter.
  • Sept. 13, 2023 – a team of about 50 UCLA researchers said they would study the effects of the leak on the health of residents near the Aliso Canyon field. Their team will examine “thousands of pollutants in people’s blood and blood of babies at birth, to look for unexpected differences in the blood of people in the community compared to those outside the affected area.”

aAliso Canyon above Porter Ranch on Monday, August 7, 2023. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)Many nearby residents in the San Fernando Valley believe the health study being launched at UCLA, like other measures, is long overdue.

“I’m concerned and it’s coming so late that a lot of the data is lost,” said Glueck, who was among residents pushing for the gas company to release a list of chemicals released during the four-month-long leak, which was finally capped in February 2016. The California Council on Science and Technology later found that only a third of the chemicals emitted from Aliso Canyon were monitored during or after the leak.  

UCLA researchers recently said they would try to obtain the chemicals list from SoCalGas although the gas company is not legally complied to share that information.

“All we want is answers about why people are getting sick here. But we don’t know if UCLA will have all the data,” said Glueck, who recently finished a self-published book titled, “Incompetent, Corrupt, or Impotent: How Public Agencies Mishandled the Aliso Canyon Disaster in the San Fernando Valley.”

SoCalGas representatives did not respond to multiple requests for comment. In a recent email to Daily News, the company’s spokesman wrote that “SoCalGas and state regulators, who worked in consultation with independent experts at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Labs, conducted a comprehensive safety review at Aliso Canyon in 2017. That review and safety enhancements SoCalGas completed have been recognized as the most rigorous and comprehensive in the nation.”

The gas company has maintained that Aliso Canyon is under “the most rigorous monitoring, inspection and safety requirements in the nation.”

The 2019 settlement set aside $2.5 million for the South Coast Air Quality Management District to perform fence line and community air monitoring at Aliso Canyon for five years. An AQMD representative wrote in an email that “some community monitors are currently up and running, while the fence line monitoring system is in the process of being implemented.”

But Porter Ranch resident Craig Galanti questioned why it took so long for air monitoring to get underway when under the agreement “we’re supposed to have abundant BTEX monitors installed.” (BTEX monitors are known for detecting benzene and other toxic chemicals in the air at very low levels).

“Yet eight years later, this is not in place,” Galanti said. “One needs to ask, is this intentional?”

Ron Nagai, the former Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council president, said “What (government agencies) have done over the last eight years has no consequence to bettering Porter Ranch.”

“With all that (government agencies) have done with fining and suing, what actually has been done for the citizens of Porter Ranch and the community?” he asked.

Nagai added: “What benefit in the eyes of the community all the regulatory agencies have they done? Zero. That is a sad story for people who are supposed to be serving the public.”

For Attai, seeing her neighbors struggling with bronchitis, asthma and cancer, makes her wonder if their health conditions were caused by the uncontrolled release of methane and chemicals from the leak. She questioned whether the UCLA study could make meaningful discoveries more than eight years after residents were exposed to the leak.

“The health study is a joke and a waste of money,” she said. “It’s going to be nine years when they start the study and they want to find short-term effects. It’s been too long. What are they going to find?”

Attai said that every anniversary of the disastrous leak, which changed many lives both in her family and neighborhood, brings her a sense of post-traumatic stress, especially since state regulators voted to allow the gas company to expand its capacity at Aliso Canyon again, despite pressure from residents and elected officials to shut it down.

“We are still getting sick,” she said. “Why do we have to live like this? This is not fair and not right.”

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