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Workers wary of igniting natural gas as they try to stop leak near Porter Ranch

Southern California Gas workers and others work on a relief well at the Aliso Canyon facility near Porter Ranch.

Southern California Gas workers and others work on a relief well at the Aliso Canyon facility near Porter Ranch.

(Dean Musgrove / Associated Press)

California regulators are taking precautions so that crews do not ignite leaking methane gas as they work to plug a defective well north of Los Angeles, the state’s oil and gas supervisor said Tuesday.

Steve Bohlen, director of the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, said the precautions include keeping engines, drills, cellphones and other ignition sources at a distance from the leaking Southern California Gas Co. well.

The well is releasing a large amount of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and has sickened residents.

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Special care is needed because “natural gas is escaping, venting from around the well and mixing with the oxygen in the atmosphere,” Bohlen said. He said that the methane being released poses a threat to about 100 workers at the site, but not the general public.

Southern California Gas has been under scrutiny as the leak detected Oct. 23 at its Aliso Canyon storage field has dragged on for more than seven weeks, generating a flurry of complaints from San Fernando Valley residents and reports of nausea, headaches, nosebleeds and other health problems in nearby Porter Ranch.

Under orders from the L.A. County Department of Public Health, 1,675 households affected by odors from the leak have been relocated at the gas company’s expense.

Officials with the governor’s Office of Emergency Services said Tuesday that they have not issued evacuation orders because there is no clear public safety hazard to nearby residents. The nearest homes are more than a mile from the leaking well.

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After unsuccessful attempts to plug the leak by pumping fluid into the well, crews working for Southern California Gas are drilling a relief well to permanently seal off the stricken well -- a process the company says could take up to four months. The company said it is also preparing a second relief well.

Residents and the Los Angeles city attorney have sued Southern California Gas over the leak and air quality officials have cited the company for public nuisance violations.

Local officials, including L.A. City Council members and county supervisors, have sharply criticized the utility, demanded investigations and health studies and have called for Gov. Jerry Brown to intervene.

The California Air Resources Board released a report last month that found the leak is releasing about 50,000 kilograms of methane an hour -- so much that it’s boosting by 25% California’s emissions of the planet-warming gas.

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Jorn Herner, chief of research planning, administration and emissions mitigation at the Air Resources Board, said Tuesday that ongoing measurements of methane emissions from airplane flyovers and towers show the leak is releasing the equivalent of about 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each month.

That’s about the same amount of planet-warming emissions as driving 210,000 cars for a year or consuming 110 million gallons of gas.

The gas drifting into neighborhoods is mostly methane, which does not pose long-term health risks. The gas contains mercaptans, foul-smelling additives to assist in detecting leaks, that can cause temporary symptoms, but are not toxic or damaging to the body, according to health officials.

State environmental authorities have also been monitoring levels of benzene, a cancer-causing gas that is also being released from the well.

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John Budroe, senior toxicologist with the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, said spikes in benzene have occurred only near the well site and not in residential areas.

The leaking well, installed in 1953, extends about 8,500 feet below the surface and is one of 115 storage wells at the 3,600-acre facility.

Bohlen said state officials have been combing through records on each well to assess their testing history and condition.

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“On the surface, it does not appear as though SoCalGas is guilty of any violations,” Bohlen said.

The facility -- one of four Southern California Gas storage sites in the Southland -- can hold 86 billion cubic feet of natural gas, enough to supply all of Southern California for more than a month, according to the gas company.

State regulators, including the California Public Utilities Commission and the California Energy Commission, said Tuesday that they are monitoring natural gas supplies, but do not believe the leak will affect the availability of gas for cooking, heating and power generation.

Michael Picker, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, said the state has also directed Southern California Gas to hire an independent third party to conduct a root cause analysis of the well failure.

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Twitter: @tonybarboza

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