State officials formally declared the Aliso Canyon gas leak capped Thursday, but uncertainty remains about the future of the facility and the residents who live around it.
The capping of the leaking well ends four months of foul air that sickened many Porter Ranch residents and forced thousands to flee their homes. Crews reached the leak last week and injected heavy fluids and then cement to seal it.
Residents who moved out of their homes were notified by phone, text and email Thursday morning that they had eight days to vacate temporary housing that Southern California Gas Co. has been paying for. By early Thursday, residents of 1,800 households had returned to their homes, said Gillian Wright, vice president of customer service for the utility; 5,774 households remain in temporary housing.
An estimated 4,000 reimbursement checks were to be issued Thursday to residents who incurred expenses related to the leak, she said.
Some residents have said they are glad to return home; others worry about the long-term safety of their San Fernando Valley neighborhood if the Aliso Canyon facility remains in operation.
"It's woken the community up to the fact that there are dozens of other wells," said Randall Bell, an appraiser who is working with attorneys to determine what may happen to property values in Porter Ranch. "Now the community is wide awake to that issue."
The gas company is facing investigations by the state attorney general's office and the Los Angeles city attorney's office, dozens of lawsuits for economic damages, and the possibility of environmental fines connected to the well's release of an estimated 80,000 metric tons of mostly methane gas into the atmosphere.
The company also faces four criminal charges from the L.A. County district attorney's office for failing to report the release of hazardous materials and discharging air contaminants. The company has pleaded not guilty.
Dennis Arriola, president and chief executive of Southern California Gas, said the company would develop a plan to mitigate the damage the leak did to the environment.
"To the residents of Porter Ranch and the surrounding communities, I want to tell you I recognize the disruption that this gas leak has caused to your lives," Arriola said. "I know there is nothing that I can say that will change the past, but I know that measurable actions actually speak louder than words."
Gas officials had been prevented by regulators from injecting gas into the storage field while SS-25 continued to leak. Now that the leak has been stopped, crews will inspect the other 114 wells on the Aliso Canyon site. Each well could take as long as 20 to 30 days to inspect and test, depending on how much equipment and how many trained workers are available, according to gas company officials.
Guidelines for those inspections were released by state officials Wednesday night.
New gas injections will not be allowed at the facility until those inspections are completed. However, the utility is allowed to withdraw gas. Last month, the Public Utilities Commission ordered the company to reduce the level of working gas at Aliso Canyon to 15 billion cubic feet.
The gas company will be required to do a full inspection and testing of the other wells at Aliso Canyon before injections can resume. State authorities will continue to investigate the cause of the leak, which was first reported Oct. 23.
The Public Utilities Commission has taken over control of that well site.
"We're ramping up an independent and very comprehensive investigation at the site," said Michael Picker, president of the commission. "Now that the well is closed and the leak is sealed, we have actually taken control of the site to preserve evidence."
The state commission is also tracking the costs associated with the leak. In a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Southern California Gas Co. estimated the leak has cost $250 million to $300 million so far. The utility is insured for at least $1 billion.
As residents return home in the days and weeks ahead, attention will turn to the full scope of the damage done. Chief among their concerns are the effects that the leak will have on property values and residents' long-term health. Public health officials have assured residents the noxious fumes posed no permanent health risks.
The interim health officer for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, Jeffrey Gunzenhauser, said that if residents come home and don't smell any odors and don't have any symptoms, it is safe to stay.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District and the California Air Resources Board will continue to monitor the air in the coming weeks, looking at the levels of four pollutants: methane, which is not considered toxic to humans but is a potent greenhouse gas; mercaptans and hydrogen sulfide, which at extremely low levels can cause ailments including headache and nausea; and benzene, a known cancer-causing compound.
"My conclusion is that all the levels that we've looked at are below health levels of concern, so we do not anticipate that there will be any long-term health effects in the community," Gunzenhauser said.
On Thursday, lawmakers and activists said that though they were glad the leak had been capped, there was still much work to do.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) called for "tough new regulations" for the other 114 injection wells at the 3,600-acre underground natural gas storage facility, which is among the nation's largest. The gas company has said that many of those wells are aging, corroded and mechanically damaged.
Sherman, in a statement, called for subsurface safety valves on each well and round-the-clock monitoring that could be viewed online by the public. He said the Aliso Canyon facility should remain closed "until we know it is safe."
"We should not be declaring victory, as the Aliso Canyon facility and the negligence of Southern California Gas Co. continue to pose a threat to the community," Sherman said.
Environmental activists are calling for the permanent closure of Aliso Canyon.
Matt Pakucko, president of the community group Save Porter Ranch, said in a statement that residents "have suffered long enough and shouldn't be subjected again to a similar disaster."
"It is unacceptable to allow SoCal Gas to reopen this facility," he said.