It will be well past the holidays and into the new year before it will be possible to stop and seal the massive gas leak that has been exposing Porter Ranch to noxious fumes, officials of SoCalGas Company disclosed Tuesday.
Testifying before the Los Angeles City Council, SoCalGas CEO Dennis Arriola outlined a strategy that will require drilling a second "relief" well nearly two miles long to intercept the leaking well near the bottom of its 8,500 foot depth. The process could take three to four months, Arriola said. Less time consuming techniques for stopping well leaks have already been tried without success, he said.
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Also testifying at the hearing were residents criticizing the Gas Company for the leak's impact on their community. Speakers described the noxious odor as causing headaches and nausea. One mother said her 11-year-old son has suffered nosebleeds.
So far, the Gas Company has helped relocate more than 280 households, and another 500 are in process, said Gillian Wright, VP of Customer relations.
Just as Wright had done a week ago at an earlier hearing before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Arriola apologized to the community on behalf of the company.
"No one should have to go through these disruptions and experiences," Arriola said.
Some residents and elected officials chose stronger words to describe the leak's impact.
"It's not a quality of life issue or discomfort," said City Councilman Mitch Englander at a post hearing news conference, as Arriola stood next to him. "It's a matter of public safety, it's a matter of public health, and has to be treated as such." Englander also used the word "catastrophe."
The main component of natural gas, methane, is odorless, and so another chemical with a distinctly unpleasant smell, mercaptan, is added as an indicator.
The mercaptan is what causes the symptoms, said Cyrus Rangan, MD, with the Los Angeles County Public Health Department.
Yet to be resolved is a gas company proposal to add another chemical to neutralize the mercaptan. It is expected to be discussed Wednesday evening at a meeting of the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council.
The Aliso Canyon Facility stores gas in porous sandstone that decades ago held a natural supply of oil until it was pumped out. The gas is accessed with some 100 wells.
Using the other wells to draw off natural gas and reduce pressure in the system should reduce the rate of gas escaping, and thereby reduce the odor, said Arriola, who was joined by Jimmie Cho,
the company's VP for gas operations and system integrity.
Gas company officials said they still do not know for certain what triggered the leak, but have been able to narrow down its location to a section of the well 500 feet below ground level.
Leaks can often be stopped by flooding the well with brine or another fluid. But that was not effective in this case, said Steve Bohlen, head of the state's Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), for reasons that required a brief science lesson to explain.
Bohlen described to County Supervisors how natural gas in storage is kept pressurized. The leak allows the gas to expand rapidly, and as it does, it cools. In the case of the Aliso Canyon well, it appears the excaping methane cools enough to freeze in the pipe above the leak, thereby shielding the leak from the flooding fluid intended to seal it off.
Pressed by Supervisor Mike Antonovich as to whether DOGGR should take charge of the mission to stop the leak, Bohlen said that its role is regulatory, and that the responsibility belongs to the plant operator.
Well experts from Louisiana and Texas have been brought in to provide expertise, SoCalGas said.
Citing the uncertainty over the cause of the leak, and the inability to halt it quickly, some community voices are calling for the entire Aliso Canyon storage facility to be closed.
"Shut it down," chanted a group of demonstrators outside Los Angeles City Hall.
SoCalGas emphasized it will seal off and "kill" the leaking well, but resisted the notion of closing the entire facility, citing its importance to the natural gas infrastructure for Southern California, and pledging to investigate the cause of the leak to prevent a recurrence.
Asked if such a facility should be located farther from communities, Arriola said natural porous sandstone formations are not portable like manmade pipelines.
"We can't just pick it up and move it somewhere else," said Arriola.