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SoCal Gas abandons plans to capture and burn gas at Porter Ranch leak, citing safety concerns

Southern California Gas Co. said Monday that it has abandoned a plan to capture and burn the leaking natural gas that has forced thousands of Porter Ranch residents to relocate, citing safety concerns.

The announcement came just two days after the South Coast Air Quality Management District announced that the company’s proposal to burn the gas would be placed on hold because of the risk of a catastrophic explosion. The AQMD said the burn plan needed approval from state and federal regulators, along with fire officials.

The state Public Utilities Commission had given the gas company until Tuesday to address concerns about capturing and burning the gas, noting that the design calls for blowers with electric motors that could spark an explosion.

In explaining its decision, the utility said in a statement that it consulted with state agencies, including the AQMD, before concluding that none of the designs could provide “the safety level that SoCalGas believes is required.”

A damaged well at the company’s Aliso Canyon storage facility has been releasing environmentally damaging natural gas since Oct. 23. The company has tried several times to plug the well, but those efforts were unsuccessful. Since Dec. 4, the utility has been drilling a relief well to intercept the damaged one, one of 115 wells on the reservoir.

Sealing the well — then taking it permanently out of service — is viewed as a long-term measure. That work is expected to be completed by late February, or possibly earlier, according to a timeline released Monday.

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Burning the gas, however, was meant to give quicker relief to nearby residents, many of whom have reported headaches, dizziness, nosebleeds and nausea. Others have complained of a noxious odor that resembles the smell of rotten eggs. Nearly 2,500 households have been relocated.

The leaking gas would have been captured by a 3-foot-wide pipe, then burned. Air quality officials had said that burning the gas could have removed about 20 million cubic feet of natural gas from the air a day, or about half of the amount leaked.

Last week, the Public Utilities Commission said that the company’s incineration plan “needs further work and analysis.” The well could be vulnerable to a blowout or explosion that would allow the release of even more gas.

The AQMD was expected to resume its hearing on the burn plan Wednesday.

The gas company also said Monday that crews will reach the bottom of the well — about 8,500 feet below the surface — and seal it by late February. The process could be completed sooner.

“Our team of experts has been working around the clock since we started relief well operations in early December and we're pleased with the progress we've made thus far,” Jimmie Cho, senior vice president of gas operations and system integrity for the utility, said in the statement.

For breaking news in California, follow @MattHjourno.

Times staff writer Tony Barboza contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

9:53 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information.

This article was first published at 8:07 p.m.

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