About 30,000 Californians live in Porter Ranch, an upscale community of gated developments northwest of Burbank. A typical Porter Ranch home exceeds 4,000 square feet and sells for $1 million or more - at least, that was the selling price before October. It's a family-oriented community that provided good schools, attractive landscapes, clean air, and a general sense of security. All of that has swiftly changed in only three months. On October 23, Southern California Gas Company employees noticed a gas leak coming from the ground near a well identified as SS-25, on a hillside about a mile north of the Porter Ranch community. It was late afternoon, so the employees decided to come back the next morning to fix it. However, their efforts failed. By the next afternoon, gas had started drifting downhill into Porter Ranch, and people were already calling the gas company to complain about the odor.
That gas has now been rising out of the ground - and out of control - for about three months. Southern California Gas ("SoCalGas") expects it to continue for another several months. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has called the Porter Ranch gas leak an "environmental disaster," and County Supervisor Mike Antonovich characterized it as a "mini-Chernobyl." On January 6, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency. The state of emergency declaration includes a provision requiring SoCalGas to pay all costs associated with the leak at Porter Ranch. A number of mortgage lenders have also suspended mortgage payments for homeowners in the community.
By one estimate, the leak at Porter Ranch is producing greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to the tailpipes of 2.3 million cars. Many Porter Ranch residents have suffered headaches, nausea, nosebleeds, and other symptoms. More than 4,500 families have either left their homes or they're on the move to temporary housing to escape the rotten-egg odor of the gas. Children have been transferred to other schools away from the leak, which is discharging into the air some 110,000 pounds of methane per hour. SoCalGas expects to have the leak fixed in March, but the company has agreed to pay for temporary housing for Porter Ranch residents through April.
Natural gas is invisible, but heat-sensing cameras have captured the gas erupting out of the hillside above Porter Ranch. The leak is particularly dangerous for the 100 to 200 SoCalGas employees who are at the site trying to implement the repair. Some parents have taken children to the emergency room with shortness of breath. Some say their pets are getting sick. Now, whenever anyone feels ill at Porter Ranch, the first thing they think of is the gas. Is it making them sick? Public health officials have tried to reassure the public. The air readings at Porter Ranch do not yet require a mandatory evacuation, but public health officials have also warned that people's physical reactions to the gas are real symptoms to be taken seriously.
Realistically, the end of the leak is not yet in sight. At first, the gas company said the crisis would be over in just a few days, but each attempt to kill off the well failed. Finally, the company announced that it is drilling a relief well, which will take three to four months. According to LA Weekly, Porter Ranch resident Brandon Ly is ready to sell anyway. Mr. Ly lives in a three-bedroom home in Porter Ranch Estates about a mile-and-a-half south of SS-25. He says that he has suffered rashes, body aches, and blurry vision. His wife, Judy, is a breast cancer survivor, and her doctor has advised her to avoid any exposure to carcinogens. Brandon and Judy are worried about benzene, a carcinogen that is found in trace amounts in natural gas. Mr. Ly called a real estate agent and was told that, due to the leak, it's not a good time to sell.
Apart from the immediate damages and costs, which are already in the millions of dollars, homeowners and local realtors are also concerned that property values at Porter Ranch will take a severe hit and may not return to pre-gas leak levels for years to come. Even after this leak is plugged, there are 114 other wells north of Porter Ranch in Aliso Canyon. Realtors are trying to remain upbeat, but economist William W. Roberts, director at the San Fernando Valley Economic Research Center at Cal State Northridge, told the Los Angeles Daily News, "It's going to make it really hard to sell."
The leak is a genuine environmental disaster. It has increased California's methane emissions by 21 percent, and right now, 2.3 percent of the state's entire carbon footprint is coming from one leak in the ground above Porter Ranch. Well SS-25 was drilled in 1953. It's more than 8,000 feet underground - more than a mile-and-a-half. A safety valve that should have prevented the problem was removed in 1979 because it wasn't working properly.
Some have questioned why it's taking so long to drill a relief well. Outside experts have also expressed concerns about the missing safety valve, arguing that the absence of a safety valve suggests the gas company may have constituted negligence. U.S. Representative Brad Sherman has called for additional regulations that would require safety valves for all gas storage facilities. Had such a valve been in place, Sherman told KCRW Radio, the gas company "could have turned this off in a day." State Assemblyman Mike Gatto, the chairman of the Utilities and Commerce Committee, has announced that he will hold hearings on the safety valve issue, and a spokesperson for State Senator Fran Pavley, who represents Porter Ranch, said she is "definitely looking into the possibility of legislation involving shut-off valves."
What is particularly disturbing to so many is that SS-25 is far from unique. Many other wells are just as old or older, and according to SoCalGas, they also lack sub-surface safety valves. If one of them cracks, the Porter Ranch disaster could easily be repeated. In papers filed with the with the Public Utilities Commission in 2014, SoCalGas reported that of the 229 wells at its facilities, half are at least 57 years old, and 52 of the wells are at least 70 years old. Older wells, unsurprisingly, were not built to modern safety standards.
Several lawsuits have already been filed against SoCalGas as a result of the gas leak at Porter Ranch. Homeowners and residents are claiming diminution in their property values and in some cases medical expenses and other losses relating to their physical harm. Depending on what is uncovered in the discovery phase of the litigation, it is possible that SoCalGas may face punitive damages if there is evidence that the failure to replace the safety valve at SS-25 constitutes a willful and knowing disregard for the community’s safety. In a recent securities filing, SoCalGas reports that it has already spent more than $50 million dealing with the gas leak. That may be only the beginning of the costs.
If you are involved in any situation like the gas leak disaster at Porter Ranch, and you have to abandon your home because of a natural or a man-made disaster, keep records of everything: conversations and correspondence with insurance companies, utility companies, and public officials; travel and fuel receipts; lodging and rent receipts; and most importantly, any medical bills, records, and test results. Should you need to take legal action with the help of a personal injury attorney, meticulously keeping these kinds of records can make all the difference.
Those affected by or curious about the gas leak in the Porter Ranch area may have a number of concerns and unanswered questions. In fact, you may get different answers from different sources. If you suffer an injury or injuries because of the negligent action (or inaction) of an individual, a business, or several individuals or businesses, you are entitled under California law to reimbursement for your losses. Anyone injured by another's negligence should consult immediately with a good personal injury lawyer, and in southern California, with an experienced Los Angeles personal injury attorney.
Los Angeles personal injury attorney Steven B. Effres, at the law firm of Effres & Effres, has more than thirty years of experience representing personal injury clients in Los Angeles and throughout California. Attorney Steven B. Effres has represented personal injury victims in several mass toxic tort cases, including the Chevron refinery cases in northern California and the McColl dump site litigation in Fullerton, California. If you have questions or concerns regarding the Porter Ranch gas leak - or about any other personal injury matter in southern California - promptly contact the experienced personal injury attorneys at Effres & Effres.