Aerial footage of Aliso Canyon, California, taken on December 17, shows a geyser of black mist spewing into the air, shrouding the nearby canyons in a dense and toxic fog. The landscape beyond the mist is almost entirely obscured by the dark funnel rising skyward. That black mist is actually methane gas erupting out of a leaking pipeline at an astounding rate of 110,000 pounds per hour.
What's even more startling? This leak started on October 23rd and may not be plugged for another 3 to 4 months. To put the scale of the leak into perspective, it has thus far pumped nearly 1 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the equivalent of the annual emissions for nearly 200,000 cars.
If that sounds like a lot it's because it is. The leak at the Aliso Canyon energy facility currently accounts for 25% of all of California's methane emissions combined. Methane is a greenhouse gas that causes substantial damage to the atmosphere when released in large quantities. Tim O'Connor of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has said that the leak is unprecedented in size and complexity and environmental advocacy legend, Erin Brockovich has likened the disaster to the BP oil spill of 2010.
The exact cause of the leak is still unknown, but most accounts acknowledge that outdated parts and poorly maintained equipment are responsible. Natural gas and oil pipelines have been described as “ticking time bombs” by members of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), and for good reason. Worn out pipelines, like the one in San Bruno, California, have been known to explode spontaneously in the night, or else they rupture and spew nearly a million gallons of crude oil into a major river when they become too rusted.
Simple Safety Measures Overlooked
While engineers don’t yet know the precise cause of the leak, they believe it resulted from a ruptured gas pipe sitting over several hundred feet below the ground. Initially, methane was pumping out with such force that engineers and technicians had no way to seal or stop it. In the past month they have successfully cut that pressure in half and are beginning to drill relief wells for the excess gas to escape, but the relief wells won’t be finished until as late as March of 2016. That means up to 3 more months of unprecedented levels of methane gas.
A former field engineer at Aliso Canyon named Anneliese Anderle stated that the facility had been deteriorating for years. "It's gleaming. They have great roads and well-marked pipelines. Everything's painted. But just below the surface, it's junk."
Anderle pointed out that the damaged well at Aliso Canyon was supposed to have a safety valve to prevent just such a disaster. A representative from SoCalGas, the company in charge of the gas facility, explained that the safety valve had been removed in 1979 and never replaced. The representative went on to mention that the valve had been leaky and that finding a replacement part was difficult, so executives opted to simply throw it away because the well in question wasn't "critical," meaning that it wasn't within 100 feet of a road or residential area.
"You [got] rid of a safety valve because it wasn't working?" responded Anderle with shock, "A safety valve would have shut the damn well down!"
As Anderle points out, this leak is a perfect example of the startlingly common negligence and oversight demonstrated by massive energy corporations. In an attempt to save time and money SoCalGas opted instead to remove safety feature rather than replace it.
Thousands Sick or Relocated – Possible Carcinogens in the Air
So far over 2,200 households have been relocated to temporary housing and another 3,000 are in the process. Many residents of the Porter Ranch neighborhood of Los Angeles have complained of headaches, nosebleeds and severe nausea from the fumes, which have been described as smelling like rotten eggs. This smell comes from a substance called Mercaptan that gas companies add to the otherwise odorless Methane.
The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has stated that the leak poses no “immediate danger to life, and permanent or long term health effects are not expected." That said, another government agency – the Air Quality Management District – found that the leak was giving off high quantities of a chemical known as Benzene. Benzene is a known carcinogen. The area surrounding Porter Ranch, CA (the neighborhood closest to the leak) has Benzene levels “three to five times higher than what we see in urban Los Angeles," according to Sam Atwood with the Air Quality Management District.
Too Little Too Late
Jason Marshall, Chief Deputy Director of the California Department of Conservation told the Los Angeles Times that the leak at Aliso Canyon will make experts “ask questions about [natural gas] well construction and operation” and that he believes the disaster will have a lasting impact on how gas is stored in the United States.
These are all encouraging statements to hear and hopefully they come to pass, but it’s still a shame that these changes will only occur after the damage to the nearby community and the environment is done.