CALIFORNIA POLITICS

Senator wants independent testing of air in Porter Ranch area before residents move back

The smell was gone.

A video released by state officials Friday showed the moment when the massive gas leak at a Southern California Gas well was finally plugged Thursday morning. Plumes of methane are seen billowing from the well, then the plume falters for moment before simply vanishing — ending the 31/2-month ordeal.

But it still remains uncertain when the thousands of residents who left their homes will return. Some residents said they were eager to get back home once the well is permanently plugged, but others said they are still deciding what to do.

"It's a huge relief, but I feel suspicious ... kind of like getting back together with your husband after he cheated on you," said resident Jacki Swift. "Even if the big leak is fixed, I will continue to worry about the safety of my home."

Sen. Barbara Boxer visited Porter Ranch on Friday and called for an independent air study to be done before residents must move home from their temporary accommodations.

Boxer said she had chosen not to visit the community sooner because she believed state and local officials were in control of the situation.

After meeting with a handful of residents for about 30 minutes at the Shepherd of the Hills Church, Boxer said the community's deep mistrust of the Southern California Gas Co. and state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources necessitates an independent study to show air in the community and inside homes is safe to breathe.

The study could be done by a private group, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or South Coast Air Quality Management District, she said.

"Before these families return home, they will need to know with certainty, with certainty, that the air will be safe to breathe and their homes will be safe to occupy," Boxer said. The senator made her request in letters to Gov. Jerry Brown and the gas company.

Her visit came one day after gas company officials said they had controlled the leak by injecting fluids and heavy mud via a relief well that intercepted the damaged one. The next step is to permanently seal the well by injecting it with cement.

Gas company spokeswoman Stephanie Donovan said work will continue "around the clock" until that has been done.

Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources officials will then inspect the well to determine if the leak is indeed over. Boxer said the verification process is insufficient because the division "does not have a reputation up until to this point that is good enough."

The agency's method of verifying the leak will not include testing air in the area, said Don Drysdale, a spokesman for the Department of Conservation. Other agencies are responsible for air quality testing, he said.

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The South Coast air district has been testing and analyzing emissions in the community for months with three monitoring stations and a vehicle with a real-time methane monitor. Those results are posted on the district's website.

Air quality officials are developing a plan to continue monitoring for several months after the leak ends, said a district spokesman.

The gas company said it will move forward with drilling a second relief well, beginning Monday, per orders by state regulators.

"Despite successfully stopping the leak, until [Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources] lifts its order, we will continue to move forward with construction of the second relief well," Donovan said.

Boxer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced an amendment to an energy bill last week that directs Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to lead a federal review of the cause of the leak and the cleanup efforts. A report on the task force's findings would be due in six months.

The bill has stalled, however so Boxer said she has asked Moniz to visit Aliso Canyon personally.

The massive gas leak, which was reported by the gas company Oct. 23, caused thousands of families in Porter Ranch and the surrounding communities to relocate. Odorants added to the methane left many residents with headaches, dizziness and nausea.

With the leak stopped, residents expect those symptoms will go away. But some will remain skeptical.

"Once it's deemed safe, I will feel more comfortable with the idea of moving home but won't feel entirely safe until the facility is shut down or at least retrofitted with safety equipment so there is no possibility of this occurring again," Darren Hallihan said.

Times staffer Daniela Gerson contributed to this report.

alice.walton@latimes.com | @TheCityMaven

abby.sewell@latimes.com | @sewella

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 13, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Boxer: Test air in leak area - Senator says independent scrutiny is necessary before residents move back to Porter Ranch." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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