ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A natural gas leak in Los Angeles County has forced more than 2,000 families to move temporarily. The leak began weeks ago - residents have complained of headaches, nausea and nosebleeds. As Ingrid Lobet reports, the leak is sending a potent greenhouse gas into the air.
INGRID LOBET, BYLINE: The methane gas - the same gas that fires your stove or heater - is billowing out of the ground from a field where the gas company stores it until it’s needed. But for nearly nine weeks now, it’s also been reaching the community of Porter Ranch. Robin Shapiro, the mother of two toddlers, recently spoke at a community meeting.
SHAPIRO: I have felt the effects, as my husband has - the stomach, the vomiting, the headaches. But when my 17-month-old son has to be on a nebulizer and comes home with bloody noses, there's no excuse. I had to leave.
LOBET: Two nearby elementary schools are closing for the rest of the school year, meaning nearly 2,000 local children will have to finish at other schools. The carcinogen benzene was found well above expected levels in one government air sample. While the community struggles with dislocation during the holidays, up above in Aliso Canyon, crews of workers are trying again this week to kill the broken well from above. One challenge - the terrain is pretty steep.
JASON MARSHALL: Oh, it’s absolutely steep.
LOBET: Jason Marshall is chief deputy director of the California Department of Conservation. The leak raises an important question - why isn’t all this gas being captured?
MARSHALL: When the gas comes up, it's not like it's in a neat, tidy stream that you can just sort of put a nuzzle over and capture. The earth has actually been pushed away by the gas coming up around the outside of the well.
LOBET: But Marshall says they are trying to capture the gas, and they’re drilling a new well to intercept and close off the one that's blown, which was drilled back in 1953.
MARSHALL: You know, it’s an old well. The construction of it wouldn’t meet today’s standards.
LOBET: The backdrop for this leak is that never have there been more regulations in the works to control methane - many times stronger than carbon dioxide in its ability to warm the atmosphere. So the sheer size of the release has been shocking. Tim O’Connor works for the Environmental Defense Fund, but he used to inspect large plants, like refineries, for leaks.
>>O’CONNOR: And we’d find little leaks, big leaks, that might be on the order of a pound or two per day. In this, we’re looking at 44,000 to 55,000 kilograms per hour of methane.
LOBET: So far, it's enough to have heated tens of thousands of households for a year.
>>O’CONNOR: This is so far above and beyond what I've ever seen or what most people in the California research agencies or in the oil and gas space have ever seen.
LOBET: Multiple lawsuits have been filed. Now some residents are calling for the closure of the entire gas storage field. But Southern California Gas, which owns it, says this release, while extremely serious, is an aberration. Gillian Wright is vice president for customer services.
GILLIAN WRIGHT: This is not something that we have ever observed in any of our storage fields. It's not something that we’re aware of occurring in other storage fields in the U.S. or North America.
LOBET: Wright also points out this gas field provides for the basic needs of more than 21 million customers.
WRIGHT: And it is the largest storage field in the western United States. So it’s essentially the heart of our system in terms of supplying and managing demand.
LOBET: Investigations into what caused the blowout of the well named SS-25 will be going on for months. For NPR News, I'm Ingrid Lobet.
SHAPIRO: That story came to us from inewsource and the public media collaboration Inside Energy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.