On October 23, employees at the Southern California Gas Company's Aliso Canyon facility, located in the upscale L.A. exurb of Porter Ranch, discovered a leak in one of their natural gas wells. They resolved to fix it the next day.
Over three months later, the well is still spewing methane and mercaptans into the atmosphere at an alarming rate, and SoCal Gas is still at a loss over how to stop it.
On Wednesday, Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey filed criminal charges against SoCal Gas. The charges include three counts of failing to report the release of a hazardous material and one count of discharge of air contaminants. Both are misdemeanors. If it is found guilty, the company could end up paying $25,000 a day for every day it did not report the leak and $1,000 a day for each day it has polluted the air.
Consumer advocate Erin Brockovich — yes, that Erin Brockovich — lives in Agoura Hills, just 30 minutes from Porter Ranch. She tells Rolling Stone she was out of the country when the leak started, and she came home to a stream of emails from residents worried about it. "As soon as I land, bleep, bleep, bleep, bleep, bleep, they start coming through. I see, Oh, Porter Ranch — that's near my home — Oh, Porter Ranch. Oh, Porter Ranch. By the time I've read the 23rd email, I'm like, What the hell happened in Porter Ranch?"
Because of the movie about her $333 million lawsuit against PG&E, Brockovich is accustomed to hearing from residents of communities concerned about potential water contamination. The Porter Ranch leak was different than the disasters she usually takes on, but the scope was troublingly familiar.
Everyone — from Southern California residents to gas company executives — is still trying to figure out what went wrong at Porter Ranch. The leak, which continues unabated to this day, is one of the worst environmental disasters in recent memory in the U.S., if not the world.
Estimates in late January suggest the emissions are equivalent to 2.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, or, as the LA Times explained, "more greenhouse gas than 440,000 cars emit in a year."
The leak is so immense that even if the gas company wanted to — or if the state of California ordered it to, as Gov. Jerry Brown appears poised to do — it would not be able to buy enough carbon credits to offset the damage. A leading certifier of carbon offsets told the paper that not enough credits exist.
"The Porter Ranch situation is the BP oil spill on land," Brockovich says.
As was true after the 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, it will probably take years to fully understand the impact of the disaster.
What we do know now is that area residents are already feeling the effects of the leak.
Brockovich — who's working with Weitz & Luxenberg, a law firm that's mounting a lawsuit against SoCal Gas — says residents are complaining about headaches, nausea, nosebleeds and bronchial conditions.
SoCal Gas maintains that the emissions from the leak can't hurt residents, even as the company has agreed to relocate some families miles away from the facility. "We're all taught in Kindergarten, if you smell gas, you run, right? But [residents] were being told it can't hurt you," Brockovich says. "People are frustrated.... You have families coming from big homes, and they're being put in one-room hotels. People are coming home finding out that their animals have passed."
Brockovich says she and her colleagues felt the effects themselves while spending time in Porter Ranch interviewing prospective plaintiffs. "You just kind of felt woozy," she says.
The firm Brockovich is working with isn't alone in taking legal action relating to the leak — at last count, at least 25 suits had been filed against SoCal Gas and its parent company, Sempra Energy. She estimates, based on past experience with environmental disasters, that the Porter Ranch leak could end up costing the company billions of dollars.
"It's not just Porter Ranch," Brockovich says. "There's communities like Chatsworth, there's communities like Northridge, there's communities like Granada Hills, and a lot of them are writing to me" saying they've felt the effects of the leak, she says. "So the magnitude of how far this gas plume has gone is probably going to be bigger than many of us imagined."
Brockovich was pleased on Wednesday to hear that charges had been filed against the company. "It is high time SoCalGas is held responsible for its actions," she said in an emailed statement.