Special Report: Porter Ranch Gas Leak Pt. 1

Derrick Shore: Some people see the source of the disaster from their front door.

Maureen Capra/Homeowner: It's scary. It really is scary.

Derrick Shore: It's the last thing people here would ever expect.It's a community of 30-thousand... In the hills north of Los Angeles. Peaceful. Quiet.But for the past few months, a little *too* quiet. Where is everyone?

Protesters: Shut it down, Shut it down.

Derrick Shore:They're here...

(Protester: "you are destroying our lives.")
Derrick Shore: And here...

(Homeowner outside public hearing: You don't have the legality to poison us.

Derrick Shore: And they're not happy. Turns out their homes are right next to Aliso Canyon... site of the largest underground natural gas reservoir in the western United States. And many of them didn't know it... until it started leaking.
October 23, 2015 : Leak detected

Derrick Shore:The gas would spew from a broken pipe for 112 days and become the worst environmental disaster since the BP oil spill. Since natural gas is invisible no one could see the leak until this infrared video went viral. And Southern California Gas, which owns the facility, did not tell the public about the leak for several days. It wasn't long before concerned residents began moving out of their homes. Sam and Anna Kojaoghlanian were among the first to leave. Hey, Sam. How's it goin'? Good to see you. How's everything going?

Sam Kojaoghlanian: Good. Come on in.

Derrick Shore:For more than three months, they camped out with their three kids and Sam's father in this woodland hills hotel.Hey guys!

Kids: Hi!

Derrick Shore: It wasn't exactly a vacation.

Sam Kojaoghlanian: So, this is pretty much it. We have my daughter doing homework with my wife. This is our kitchen pretty much.

Derrick Shore: Wow!

Sam Kojaoghlanian: Microwave, some water, some essentials, things like that for tea.

Derrick Shore: So, that's your kitchen?

Sam Kojaoghlanian: Yeah, this is it. This is where they do their homework. One desk that they have to sometimes fight for space to write.

Derrick Shore: So, this is the room for sleeping and homework and eating and playtime. This has got to be stressful, I would imagine, for everyone. How are the kids doing at school? How is your wife doing?

Sam Kojaoghlanian: Um, you know it's very stressful, it's very tight. We don't have privacy, we don't have our space like we did at home. The kids' grades are suffering...)

Derrick Shore: Despite the stress and cramped quarters, they felt safer here than at home. Like their neighbors, they'd been having physical reactions to the smell of chemicals added to natural gas.

Sam Kojaoghlanian:Nose bleeds, headaches…

Anna Kojaoghlanian:;Well, it started um with my youngest well my middle son. Um he was getting nosebleeds and he doesn't normally get nose bleeds. A lot of different symptoms. We felt them all throughout our family and we had to leave.

Derrick Shore:About a third of the porter ranch residents moved out while the gas continued to leak. That's close to 10,000 people in hotel rooms and short-term rentals, paid for by SoCalGas.

Gillian Wright/SoCalGas spokesperson: There clearly are short-term symptoms that some people experience from the odor and those are real and they're disruptive and they're uncomfortable and have been very difficult for some people.)

Derrick Shore:Gillian Wright - a SoCal Gas executive - says the company regrets customers' symptoms. But she believes families have nothing to worry about.

Gillian Wright:;We really have to rely on the health experts. What the L.A. County Dept. of Public Health has said and what the State Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment have said is that there's no evidence that there's going to be long-term health effects from exposure to these substances at the concentrations that they're at.

Anna Kojaoghlanian:Can you believe them? Are they being honest?

Derrick Shore: Do you believe them?

Anna Kojaoghlanian: I don't know! I can't because there are just so many unknowns still.

Derrick Shore: The L.A. School District shared that concern. In mid-December, it closed two Porter Ranch schools, and re-located nearly two thousand students to other schools several miles from the leak.

Gabriel Khanlian:Pretty much the whole mountain back there is SoCalGas.

Derrick Shore:Gabriel Khanlian moved out of his home...and into... the role of community activist.

Gabriel Khanlian: Never did i ever think I would be standing here today, making my call to SoCalGas to stop the leak and shut it down.

Protesters: Shut it down now. Now!

Derrick Shore: So when you purchased the land and built your home, you had no idea that a gas well was here?

Gabriel Khanlian:No idea.

Derrick Shore: Normally, Gabriel runs a small business. But, throughout the crisis, instead of fulfilling orders... He monitored air quality data. When you have a reading like this on the chart I would imagine the methane smell is....

Gabriel Khanlian:Smells like strong rotten eggs.

Derrick Shore: Strong rotten eggs.

Gabriel Khanlian: Mixed with sulfur. There has not been any long-term testing on the mercaptans, benzene, the methane, so that part worries me significantly...

Derrick Shore: Because no one really knows what the long-term effects could be.

Gabriel: Exactly. So, we're pretty much the test objects in porter ranch.

Maureen Capra/resident: Let’s go look at our well.

Derrick Shore: Wow, so you can really see it from your front yard?

Maureen Capra: It’s right up there. The one with the red top.

Derrick Shore: Wow!

Maureen Capra:It's about a mile away. A little more than a mile. A little too close I'd say. Too close for comfort.

Derrick Shore:Maureen Capra has a direct view of Aliso Canyon. She, too, believes she got sick from smelling the chemicals in the gas. And yet, she decided to stay. Why have you not chosen to leave?

Maureen Capra:This is my home. I've been here 40 years it is hard for me to leave my home and I don't want to go sit in a hotel.)

Derrick Shore: Instead, she remained indoors as much as possible.

Maureen Capra: It's like staying in prison kind of in a way, because you have to stay inside.

Derrick Shore:;She took precautions to keep the outside air... outside! So, this is one of...

Maureen Capra: ...four air purifiers that we have. And when we first turned them on, the blue light was red and it took about a day before it turned blue and the blue means the air quality is good in here.)

Derrick Shore: SoCalGas paid for air purifiers and...I've never seen a device like this. This is attached to your furnace?

Maureen Capra:Right it's an air scrubber, it scrubs the air.

Derrick Shore: A device that uses a UV light to clean the air... and weather stripping on the doors.Do you think that stuff is working and protecting your health?

Maureen: yeah, to some degree. About a week after we got these, our nosebleeds stopped. Reporter: So, you think they're working?

Maureen: I do think it's working.

Day 43: December 4, 2015: Drilling begins on a relief well

Derrick Shore: Six weeks into the leak, gas continued to spew non-stop into the atmosphere. The first method SoCalGas used to try to plug the leak didn't work.

Gillian Wright: When the leak was first discovered um they initially did the standard operations which is to pump fluids into the well to stop the flow of gas into the well and then examine what the condition of the pipe is. That initial operation was unsuccessful.

Derrick Shore: After several more attempts, it was on to plan B: A more aggressive approach. Drilling what's called a 'relief well' thousands of feet below the surface to try to plug the leaking pipe with concrete. But just how badly was the air being contaminated? It's scientist Stephen Conley's job to measure that. He's also a pilot... And his plane is outfitted with special equipment.

Stephen Conley U.C. Davis Environmental Scientist: This is the line we’re most using right now… our stainless steel.. We’re using it to measure our methane.

Derrick Shore:These air sensors send samples to a methane analyzer in the back of Stephen's plane. So, you know when you're flying through a hot spot or a high methane concentration...

Stephen Conley: In fact, we have to see it because we have to know how high to go. Reporter: Wow! Most people would avoid the methane but you fly straight for it. We look for it. [laughs])

Derrick Shore:When Stephen first started flying over porter ranch, his methane readings were off the charts.

Stephen Conley: We expect to see something in the couple hundred kilogram per hour range as a normal range. And, the first time here was 44,000.

Derrick Shore:44,000?

Stephen Conley: Yeah

Derrick Shore: Compared to what's typically just a couple hundred?

Stephen Conley: Yeah, a couple hundred is a typical storage facility.

Derrick Shore:In other words the methane was more than 200 times normal levels.

Stephen Conley:This is certainly the biggest leak that i'm aware of. So in terms of comparing it to other leaks, it's huge.

Derrick Shore:At a time when California is trying to decrease its greenhouse gas emissions, this is a pretty major setback.

Stephen Conley: In terms of California's emissions, I think I figured out it was about 9% of California's methane emissions for the year, so, yeah, it's a setback for us, big-time.

Derrick Shore: Each day, the greenhouse gases from the Aliso Canyon leak equaled the emissions from driving four and a half million cars. And methane is one of the worst chemicals for the environment... 25 times worse than carbon dioxide. But, SoCal Gas promises to make up for it.

Gillian Wright/SoCalGas: In December, our CEO sent a letter to the governor committing, even before the leak was stopped, that we were going to mitigate the entire greenhouse gas impact of the leak and that was going to be done at the expense of our shareholders, that we would pay for the cost of that mitigation.)

Derrick Shore:But how to recapture methane that is already out there? The short answer is... you can't!

Stephen Conley: You're not getting that methane back.

Derrick Shore:So once it's out there, it's out there.

Stephen Conley: The genie is out of the bottle. But, it is true that you can, in a way, undo that damage by just... All methane is the same, so you can capture some other methane source.

Stephen Conley: SoCal Gas says its plan to counteract the environmental damage is still in the works.

Gillian Wright: I can't tell you today what those steps are going to be because we have to complete our investigation, but our focus is to know and learn and apply what it takes to make sure it never happens again.

Day 76: January 6, 2015 - Governor declares a state of emergency.
(Chants of protesters: Jerry Brown, where are you? Jerry Brown, where are you?)

Derrick Shore: Governor Brown’s declaration came 76 days into the crisis.

(Protesters: Where’s Governor Brown?)

Derrick Shore: Many thought he was too slow to react. The community vented its frustrations in protests, meetings, hearings... demanding answers... and losing patience.

Angry homeowner at public hearing: I want to be in my home. If i cannot go home, Ii want you, Mr. Cho (SoCalGas executive), to buy my home for $850,000.
Derrick Shore: Lawyers began soliciting clients, urging them to sue. And politicians piled on.

State Rep. Mike Gatto during public hearing: How did this happen?

SoCalGas executive responds: We don't know. We need to do an investigation. Let the facts come out.

Derrick Shore:And all the while... Workers kept drilling.

Day 112 Februrary 11, 2016 The leak is contained.

Derrick Shore:At Aliso Canyon, the drilling crew finally reached the leaking well more than 8,000 feet below the ground. This time-lapse, infrared video shot by the California Air Resources Board shows the gas leak finally coming to an end. At the SoCal Gas Emergency Operations Center, emails and calls went out to customers, alerting them of the news.

SoCalGas communications person at Operations center: With emails today, we sent out 54,000. And we had outbound calls of 38,000 and letters to be mailed that will start tomorrow of 71,000. So, that was a lot of communication today of our milestone being reached of well control. Happy well control day!)

Derrick Shore:Soon, a steady stream of cement trucks would begin moving in to seal the leak permanently. And in Porter Ranch, air quality monitoring vehicles detected an immediate drop in methane.

Day 119: February 18, 2016: The well is certified as permanently plugged
(Jason Marshall/California Dept. of Conservation: We have good news. The leak at the Aliso Canyon storage field is permanently sealed.

Derrick Shore: Finally, on February 18, the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) certified that the leaking well is now permanently plugged. But there's a whole new task ahead.


Gillian Wright/SoCalGas: We need to understand what happened here, and we need to look at what changes need to be made and what we learned from the investigation and what that means for how we operate.

Anna: what's the guarantee of this not happening again?
Sam: So, yes, we would love to go back but there's always that doubt, peace of mind, where you could sleep at night.

Gabriel: I don't believe it is the end because what is the end? When will it end? The only way to end it is by completely depleting the wells and shutting it down. That's the only way we'll feel safe in porter ranch and neighboring communities as well.
Derrick Shore: The immediate crisis is over. But many questions remain. There are 114 other wells at Aliso Canyon. Could this happen again? We'll explore that and other questions in the next part of our Special Report on the Porter Ranch gas leak. I'm Derrick Shore for SoCal Connected.

On Oct. 23, 2015, workers at a SoCalGas facility in the hills north of Los Angeles detected a leak. One of the 115 natural gas wells at the Aliso Canyon underground reservoir had developed a leak and was spewing methane gas into the atmosphere. It would become one of the biggest environmental disasters the region has ever faced. It happened at Aliso Canyon, near Porter Ranch. Natural gas is made up mostly of methane, a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the Earth's atmosphere.

The next day SoCalGas started trying to plug the leak. When conventional methods failed, they began drilling a relief well thousands of feet below the ground to intercept the leak and plug the well with concrete. It would take more than three months to reach the damaged well. Over that time, more than six thousand Porter Ranch residents fled their homes for temporary housing. They complained that the invisible gas caused headaches, nose bleeds and other health problems. The city shut two Porter Ranch schools. Several businesses closed. Residents, political leaders and environmentalists demanded answers from SoCalGas and government regulators as to how and why the leak occurred.

TIMELINE: Porter Ranch Gas Leak

In early February, SoCalGas engineers finally reached the broken pipe and began plugging the leak. Over the 112 days, the amount of greenhouse gas emitted from the leaking well was equivalent to adding 4.5 million cars to the road during the same amount of time.

DISCUSSION: What does the gas leak near Porter Ranch say about our energy future?

In part one of this special report, SoCal Connected's Derrick Shore explores the crisis through the stories of residents, government officials, scientists, environmentalists and SoCalGas officials. What went wrong? Who was impacted? What is the environmental damage? Could a similar disaster happen again?

Featuring Interviews With:

  • Sam Kojaoghlanian, Porter Ranch resident
  • Anna Kojaoghlanian, Porter Ranch resident
  • Gillian Wright, SoCalGas vice president
  • Gabriel Khanlian, Porter Ranch resident and activist
  • Maureen Capra, Porter Ranch homeowner
  • Stephen Conley, UC Davis atmospheric scientist
  • Kelly Hill, resident
  • Assemblymember Mike Gatto
  • Jimmie Cho, SoCalGas senior vice president

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