It’s an environmental emergency that’s not unfolding in the rainforests of South America or at the polar ice caps, but rather in a Southern California suburb.
Since October, large amounts of natural gas have been steadily leaking from an energy facility owned and operated by the Southern California Gas Company in Aliso Canyon on the northern edge of the San Fernando Valley. Because repairs involve drilling hundreds of feet below the surface, it could take work crews months to staunch the leak.
About a mile from where the work is happening sits the Los Angeles community of Porter Ranch, home to over 20,000 residents. When you visit, Porter Ranch doesn’t immediately feel like a neighborhood in the grip of an environmental crisis. The local Starbucks is doing brisk business. You see joggers and cyclists on neat and tidy streets. And Porter Ranch’s hillside homes, with their red tiled roofs and mini-vans parked in driveways, look like like the very picture of Southern California suburban tranquility.
But start knocking on doors and talking to residents, especially those who live closest to the leak, and the serene picture changes.
“This is quite outside of anything anyone here imagined happening, and as the story develops, it gets progressively more serious,” said George Chang who lives in one of the neighborhoods closest to the leak.
Like over 1,800 other Porter Ranch families, George, his wife Susan, and their teenage son have chosen to temporarily move out of the community because of the gas leak. They are staying at an extended stay hotel a few miles away. The Changs met us at their home as they made a quick trip to pick up essentials, like food and toiletries.
“What you do is come back to the house and visit for an hour or so and leave again because you don’t want to stay too long,” said George.
To explain why they don’t want to linger at their home, George took me into his backyard where we smelled the air. It had that distinctive “rotten eggs” aroma that comes from mercaptan, an additive added to natural gas, a reminder of what was being pumped into the atmosphere on the other side of the hill from the Changs. On really bad days, George said the aroma is really pungent, like what you would smell if you accidentally left gas burners on in your house for a long time.
And with that smell comes health concerns. Many Porter Ranch residents who live closest to the leak are complaining about nausea, dizziness and headaches. Some parents in Porter Ranch worry about the long-term effect of the leak on kids.
As he stopped to pick up mail at his house, we met Ellory Tan, the father of two small children who decided to leave Porter Ranch because of the leak.
“You know, kids’ safety is our number one priority,” said Tan. “I don’t care about myself and my wife, but our kids are so young to be exposed to this kind of environment.”
But the gas leak is also having an environmental impact far beyond Porter Ranch. Scientists say it’s releasing as much methane into the atmosphere as all other sources of methane in the Los Angeles area combined. That’s worrisome because methane is a potent greenhouse gas and what’s being released is spreading across the region.
“Well, it’s certainly a major emission source, and our measurement systems are detecting the methane footprint across the L.A. basin,” said Riley Duren. He is monitoring the natural gas leak for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Environmental concerns were heightened when one group released this infrared video of the plumes of contamination seeping into the air because of the leak:
SoCal Gas said it’s being candid with the community about the impact of the gas leak.
“We’re trying to be transparent and really open with the community,” said Javier Mendoza, a spokesperson with SoCal Gas. “And let them know we are going to continue working on multiple fronts. It’s a multi-prong effort to stop the flow of gas from the leaking well.”
SoCal Gas said it’s also doing everything it can to help Porter Ranch residents concerned about the leak. The company is paying for the temporary relocation of frightened residents, installing air filters in local schools, and it will soon open a resource center in the community to offer additional support and answer the public’s questions.
But some residents, like Susan Chang, have said these efforts are a classic example of a company doing too little, too late. She said when the leak was first detected in October by SoCal Gas, the company did little to inform residents.
“We kind of had to put the information together ourselves,” said Susan. “There seemed to be no coordinated effort to tell the community this is what’s going on. This is what we are doing. And it just kept going on like that for weeks and weeks and weeks.”
In response to such criticisms and concerns about public health issues stemming from the leak, Los Angles City Attorney Mike Feuer has sued SoCal Gas. The company also faces a class action lawsuit from Porter Ranch residents, and other legal challenges are in the works.
But the litigation could just be the start of the energy company’s problems because of the gas leak at its facility.
Joined by environmental groups, many Porter Ranch residents have staged public protests, demanding the quick and permanent closure of the SoCal Gas Company’s facilities near Porter Ranch.
“This is the moment where we have to call on our leaders to shut the facility down because that’s the only way we are going to protect the public health and the climate and our environment,” said Alexandra Nagy, an organizer with the environmental Food & Water Watch. Nagy said the Porter Ranch natural gas leak, along with other recent incidents, shows wider problems with how California monitors and regulates the state’s energy infrastructure and how unprepared authorities are when accidents do happen.
“Anytime there is some kind of pipeline failure, or well blowout, or anything, regulators do not have an emergency response plan, and that’s what we’ve seen here with the SoCal Gas leak,” said Nagy.
But the company said that despite the leak, its facilities near Porter Ranch are necessary to meet the need of the region’s energy demands.
“All of Southern California depends on this facility for the delivery of affordable energy to meet the needs of its customers, for their homes as well as all the businesses in the area,” said SoCal Gas spokesperson Javier Mendoza. “And we all depend on natural gas to turn on our lights at night, so the future of this facility is important for all of Southern California.”
But as thousands flee their homes and work continues for months to stop the natural gas leak, the debate over keeping the facility open and how California should regulate its vast energy infrastructure is likely to continue.
*If you are a Porter Ranch resident seeking updates or assistance from SoCal Gas about the leak, the company has established a website You can find it at this link: