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Gas leak at Porter Ranch well is stopped -- at least temporarily

Southern California Gas Co. announced Thursday that it has temporarily controlled the flow of gas from a well near Porter Ranch, a crucial first step in the effort to stop the leak that has forced thousands to flee their homes.

The gas company said that a relief well reached the base of the leaking well and that officials are now pumping "heavy fluids to temporarily control the flow of gas out of the leaking well." That could keep the leak plugged permanently.

But officials emphasized that this was a first step and that cement must now be poured to fully block the leak. That could take several days.

"We have temporarily controlled the natural gas flow from the leaking well and begun the process of sealing the well and permanently stopping the leak," Jimmie Cho, senior vice president of gas operations and system integrity, said in a statement released by the gas company.

State regulators will eventually conduct inspections and pressure tests to certify that, after nearly four months of environmental contamination, civic disruption and worry, Aliso Canyon Natural Storage Facility's Standard Sesnon Well 25 has been plugged.

Thursday's development was cause for celebration, although there is still a lot of work ahead, said Paula Cracium, president of the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council.

"It changes from controlling the crisis to now navigating recovery," Cracium said. "Homeowners have been injured. Property values have been injured. There's going to be a version of PTSD as they get a whiff of any odor in their home."

"Most of the families in the community are very excited to get back, but they will not be distracted by the leak stoppage. They still want to know that their homes are safe," she added.

Once the leak is stopped, residents who have temporarily relocated to leased houses and hotel rooms will have seven nights to move back to their residences, in accordance with terms of a recent agreement between the gas company and the Los Angeles city attorney's office.

However, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Porter Ranch), said Wednesday he wants to delay the start of the seven-day clock until another step is taken. Sherman wants the California Air Resources Board to certify that the air surrounding the Aliso Canyon field is free of natural gas.

Over the past three months, the well has spewed more greenhouse gases than any other facility in California. The release of so much methane, a greenhouse gas several times more powerful than carbon dioxide, will contribute significantly to global warming, experts say.

Odorants that are commonly added to gas to aid in detecting leaks have prompted hundreds of complaints of nausea, respiratory problems and nosebleeds and have displaced residents from more than 4,400 homes in Porter Ranch and its surrounding communities in the foothills of the northern San Fernando Valley.

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The stricken well is one of 115 injection wells at the 80-year-old, 3,600-acre Aliso Canyon facility, which stores 86 billion cubic feet of gas and serves 11 million people in the Los Angeles basin. Many of those wells are corroded and mechanically damaged, the gas company said.

Yet it is the only gas storage field in a distribution area stretching from Porter Ranch 60 miles south to Santa Ana that can ensure reliability in both winter, when homes and businesses use significant amounts of natural gas for heating, and summer, when gas-fired generators supply power to air conditioners.

Efforts to close the well are being conducted under new orders imposed by the Safety and Enforcement Division of the California Public Utilities Commission in consultation with the state Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources.

The gas company, which is the subject of ongoing criminal investigations and civil litigation, has been ordered by the PUC not to "remove, temporarily store, bury or raze" anything within a 400-foot radius of the wellhead.

Materials to be protected for use as possible evidence include all metal and concrete well casings, tubing, valves and valve parts, wire, gas and mud samples, gravel, cement mixtures and soil.

"It's clear the costs of this incident are the gas company's," Robert Weisenmiller, chairman of the California Energy Commission, said in an interview Wednesday. "The CPUC will be tracking all of the gas company's costs to make sure they are not allocated to ratepayers and that the shareholders have full responsibility."

Weisenmiller said he expected the issue to be highly contested.

Environmentalists said stopping the flow of gas was a big step but also urged caution.

“Stopping this leak is critical to ensure the safety of the Porter Ranch community, but this isn’t the end of the story," said Damon Nagami, director of the National Resources Defense Council’s Southern California Ecosystems Project. "We must do everything we can to protect families in California and across the country — as well as our climate — from harmful gas leaks."

L.A. City Councilman Mitch Englander issued a statement saying: "With so many lives affected over the past four months, the news of finally stopping the leak will allow this community to begin breathing a healthy sigh of relief. The next several phases are critical to ensuring the capped well is certified, the entire facility is safe, and this community can begin to recover."

Twitter: @LouisSahagun

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

2:47 p.m.: This article has been updated with reaction.

2:01 p.m.: This article has been updated with reaction from a resident.

1:48 p.m.: This article has been updated with information about the leak being stopped.

This article was originally published at 12:27 p.m.

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