Some 100 homes are set to be tested over the next few days in the Porter Ranch area where there are chemicals still lingering following the nearly four-month natural gas leak at the Aliso Canyon storage facility.
The testing comes as thousands of Porter Ranch-area residents who are living in temporary housing funded by Southern California Gas Co. await word from an appeals court on when they might need to move home.
Health officials, with the assistance of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and UCLA, plan to conduct tests in search of tiny particles, no bigger than a micron, that contain dangerous chemicals, to provide baseline readings.
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"We could be talking about chemicals that came out of the well, under the pressure and the force of the pressure of the gases that were coming out," said Angelo Bellomo of the LA County Health Department. "This is of great concern from a public health standpoint."
While the leak was active from Oct. 23 to Feb. 18, county health officials repeatedly said there was no risk of long-term health problems, although the presence of mercaptan -- an odorant added to natural gas -- could cause temporary discomfort. Many residents reported symptoms such as nausea, headaches and stomach problems, prompting them to move into temporary housing out of the area.
With the leak capped, some residents who moved back to their homes have continued to report health issues, and health officials said they want to do more analysis to determine why. Health officials said this week that residents of nearly 200 homes have reported health problems after the leak was capped.
"I can't catch my breath. I have to take breathing treatment" said Porter Ranch resident, Mike Cunningham who has been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Cunningam claims he has not had a cigarette since 1975 and said he was told by a local doctor that his symptoms and diagnosis may be a cause of dangerous chemicals.
Last week, SoCalGas officials released the results of indoor testing conducted by a private contractor at 70 Porter Ranch-area homes. The results found no elevated levels of methane and no evidence at all of mercaptan, according to the utility.
County health officials said they plan to take a wide range of measurements to determine if there's anything lingering in the air that could be contributing to health problems. Some residents have reported finding black or brown oily residue on their properties, prompting SoCalGas to dispatch cleaning crews to homes closest to the leak and to schools and parks. Company officials said they are continuing to assess homes to determine if they need cleaning, but stressed that no residue has been found inside any homes, only outside.
Health officials said earlier that the residue is not believed to be hazardous, although it could cause a rash if touched.
As of last week, about 2,600 residents were still living in temporary housing, costing SoCalGas about $1.8 million a day. With the backing of a Los Angeles Superior Court judge who said there did not appear to be any reason for residents not to return to their homes, SoCalGas was planning to end funding for residents' temporary housing today. But a state appeals court this week issued a stay on the judge's ruling and asked attorneys for the county and SoCalGas to file additional court papers by Tuesday.
It was unclear when the appeals court might issue a final ruling, again leaving displaced residents in limbo and uncertain when they may be required to return home.
Gas Co. officials said that with the judge's decision on hold until at least Tuesday, the company will continue funding the temporary housing through Thursday, pending a ruling from the appeals court.