Stopped!! Methane Blow-Out. Radioactive Fall-out. And … The Predictable Result.By: Brett Redmayne-Titley
This past Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016 brought a welcome breath of fresh air to more than 4400 displaced Porter Ranch, CA residents. It was their first in more than four months. A mile or so due north and a thousand feet farther up the foothills of the Santa Susana mountains in Aliso Canyon, the nation’s worst environmental and health disaster since BP, has stopped. Natural gas well, SS-25 is dead.
After depositing more than 90 million metric tons of a very toxic gaseous cocktail from two miles deep under the mountains up into the atmosphere above 18.5 million mostly unsuspecting Angelenos, the corporate players who have caused this disaster are now assuring this same public that they are, suddenly, protecting their interests. As highlighted in the previous article, the negligent corporate criminals at the Southern California Gas Company hold the keys to the jail and the purported guards over at the California agencies; PUC, DOGGR and the Dept. of Conservation are sound asleep in their chairs. Now, with pending legal and legislative action heading downwind towards So Cal Gas, continued close public scrutiny is warranted. Considering that these same public agencies were all negligently complicit in causing the Aliso Canyon disaster, can they now be trusted to change their spots and enforce meaningful changes upon So Cal Gas?
Like the natural gas flowing downhill from Aliso Canyon the growing plethora of damaging information against So Cal Gas funnels together down a central path. Two points generally sum-up the accusations leveled squarely at multiple defendants, many of whom will almost certainly be baring witness very soon. In court. First; owner of SS-25, the Southern California Gas Company, caused the disaster by willful negligence. Second; that this negligence was subordinated by multiple California State public officials. As the previous article shows, starting with the Calif. state agencies, P.U.C.[Public Utilities Commission]; DOGGR [Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources], and the California Department of Conservation- and likely leading to “environmental” governor, Jerry Brown’s telephone- So Cal Gas has been given unregulated cart-blanc to put their corporate profits before concerns for public and environmental health and safety. Multiple lawsuits may soon ferret-out the details of these inescapable conclusions.
At issue; the removal, rather than replacement, of a “Sub-Surface Safety Valve” on SS-25 of which So Cal Gas ,in 1979, reported to state regulators that it had indeed replaced the safety valve. Then, in 2014, So Cal Gas filed a fraudulent inspection report with the Conservation Dept. certifying that the valves were in place and had also passed inspection. With the Aliso Canyon Underground Storage Facility holding over 160 billion cubic feet of highly pressurized, very toxic gas, and the potential risks showcased for the past one-hundred-twenty-plus days in epic evidence, the necessity of safety valves is obvious. So…how many of the other 114 aging wells are also missing safety valves? In defending this apparent negligence Rodger Schwecke, of So Cal Gas, said in a public meeting last month that the company decided not to replace it [the safety valve] because it was not a “critical well.” Reportedly, according to state law, Critical Wells are defined as those being 300 feet-or-less from homes or schools. What? After hiking up the steep hills to witness the full horrifying magnitude of SS-25 up-close, the sheer lunacy of such a regulation is pause for retching disgust.
Politicians at work.
“… the relief well intercepted the base of the leaking well, and the company began pumping heavy fluids to temporarily control the flow of gas out of the leaking well,” said a statement from So Cal Gas. “The leak and the flow of gas will be declared ended once DOGGR has confirmed that the well has been permanently sealed.” So Cal Gas will now have to seal the well with cement to permanently shut it down. Once that occurs, the thousands of displaced residents from nearby Porter Ranch will have eight days to return to their homes- now up from a mere forty-eight hours- at which point So Cal Gas will terminate the leases on their temporary housing. Many residents report being coerced by So Cal Gas attorneys to sign a release from all liability before being provided any relocation costs. Fortunately, many had their own lawyers.
Legal problems for So Cal Gas continue to mount. However, judging from the facts leading to the disaster So Cal Gas is keeping their legal problems well in hand.
L.A. County Dist. Atty., Jackie Lacey, filed four misdemeanor criminal charges against the gas company, accusing it of releasing air contaminants and neglecting to report the release of hazardous materials until three days after the leak began Oct. 23. An arraignment is scheduled for Feb. 17 in Santa Clarita. The charges could result in a maximum fine of $25,000 a day for each day the leak went unreported, and $1,000 a day for each day the well has polluted the air. This is a financial break for So Cal Gas since the indictment conveniently ignores evidence that the leak started weeks before- not days before- being reported and regardless adds up to a very paltry tithing. The prospect of felony charges of personal criminal negligence have not come up.
Similarly, So Cal Gas is currently facing criminal charges from the South Coast Air Quality Management District via the public office of California Attorney General, Kamala Harris. Conspicuously, her allegiance to her boss, Gov. Jerry Brown and his duplicitous pro-oil / some-how-pro-environment agenda has already been clearly shown. When Kern County, CA farmers sought court testimony regarding the governor’s orders approving, against their community’s wishes, injection wells in their area, Harris, as AG, blocked their legal right to depositions. Echoing the theme of the administration Harris declared that Brown’s orders were, “privileged communication.” In an era when public prosecution fails routinely, allowing corporations to merely pay a fine for their felonious crimes and “get out of jail free,” presumably the amount of the mortita is already being discussed. Zealous prosecution remains to be seen.
In the furtherance of this possible pursuit of justice, the company has been ordered not to “‘remove, temporarily store, bury or raze’ anything within a 400-foot radius of the wellhead,” so that investigations can begin. Robert Weisenmiller, chairman of the California Energy Commission, told the LA Times that “The CPUC [California Public Utilities Commission] will be tracking all of the gas company’s costs to make sure they are not allocated to ratepayers and that the shareholders have full responsibility.” This was in reality a nauseating joke. To many Southern California residents of nearby Orange County, it is one that likely foreshadows an all-too-predictable outcome.
When it comes to enforcement of the utilities it is charged to regulate, the PUC has a decades’ long track record of having all the punitive authority of a Nevada boxing commissioner. In just one example; recently, after the success of the long struggle to close Southern California Edison’s negligently and fraudulently engineered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, the PUC, in its final act, indeed illustrated its respect for “shareholder responsibility”: they ordered the culprit, Edison, to receive lost income and shut down costs from… the ratepayers!
Politicians at work.
So Cal Gas admitted that SS-25 was emitting approx. 30,000 kilos-per-hour of what is commonly referred to as methane but is more accurately termed, “natural gas,” since methane is the most present of the many chemicals released. Testing by environmental scientist, Bob Bowcock, shows that So Cal Gas has under reported the release. “We’ve done actual field measurements [and] it can be as much as three times greater than what’s being reported,” said Bowcock.
What has been coming out of SS-25 is a combination of methane, the sulfur infused odorant called mercaptan, benzene, toluene, and xylene which are all carcinogenic. Next, there is hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide which are neurotoxins and can injure the brain, affect memory, injure kidneys, liver, your other bodily organs.
Methane makes up the largest component of natural gas, but strangely is the least toxic of all. Technically lighter than air it does not react as such when released from underground high-pressure storage. Methane is reportedly a much worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. For over 20 years methane is approx. eighty-six times greater in environmental effect, tapering-off to 29 times the effect of carbon dioxide over a full 100-year time frame. The methane from SS-25, however, arrives from deep underground as part of the concentrated gaseous cocktail without initially separating. “That’s a common misconception,” replied noted atmospheric test pilot, Stephen Conley, in an interview with Activist Post. As one of the very few pilots allowed access over Aliso Canyon to do fly-over testing, Conley knows well what’s coming out. “Along with the methane are other gases. These are combined under great pressure underground and when this pressure is released [at the well head] the gases become very cold. As such, these gases collectively follow on the wind and can settle in the valleys,” advised Conley. This very arbitrary settling of the gases, including methane, has been evidenced on recent Infra Red imagery of the area.
Methane is only relatively benign until the sun comes up. One of the properties of methane is that, when exposed to sunlight, it become Formaldehyde. This is extremely carcinogenic and also heavier than air. So, the natural gas and all of its many poisonous components, including methane, have been blowing all over with much of it settling on the Los Angeles basin below to the south. This was confirmed by Dr. Joseph L. Pfeifer, M.D. (director of trauma and surgical critical care at Berkshire Medical Center) on Dec 30, 2015: “When all that methane is exposed to California sunshine it gets converted to formaldehyde. The nosebleeds, headaches etc. aren’t from the “odorant”… they are signs of formaldehyde exposure… Obviously, this is something So Cal [gas] doesn’t want to talk about or you to know about.”
Incredibly, it gets worse. Radiation.
In a report from experts at the International Association for Protection from Ionizing Rays (AIPRI) in France, they state that lethal levels of naturally-occurring radiation have been coming out of SS-25 and people in the affected area will die from that radiation.
The radiation is Uranium-238 and Radon, which results from the decaying Uranium in the earth that’s left over from the days when the earth was forming. You can’t have one without the other. According to their report, when using the So Cal Gas estimates of the volume of natural gas released, they estimate about 1.91 curies an hour- or 45.9 curies per day- of this radioactive material has been released.
A curie is a unit of measure used in the United States to describe very large radioactive releases and AIPRI believes this is a very big radioactive release. Alternatively the French Becquerel is a far smaller measure for radiation equaling one radioactive disintegration (Count) per second. Since one curie equals 37 Billion Becquerels- or radioactive counts- per- second, the 45.9 curies released each day equals an astounding… 1.7 Trillion Becquerels per day.
AIPRI next calculated the human costs. Using the lethal radiation dosage standards of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), AIPRI calculated, “In 80 days of viscous and gaseous fumes at…a pace of 1.7 million m3 per day,[the] natural gas dispersed in the air could carry … TBq 301.24 (3.01x 10 to the 14th power Becquerels!). [This] is equivalent of 2.41 million potential lethal doses by inhalation…” However, independent testing has shown that So Cal Gas reported only one-third of the volume released.
18.5 million people live in the LA Basin.
Dr. Cyrus Rangan, the Director of Toxicology and Assessment for LA County, said that in their tests the site was shown to have only a mere 1.7 picocuries per liter, which was not a hazardous level, he said, to workers in an outdoor environment. A level of 4 picocuries per liter concentration is potentially hazardous. Regarding the presence of Urainium and Radon, Dr. Rangon conceded, “This is theoretically possible.”
Radiation concerns were also confirmed by LA County Supervisor, Michael D. Antonovich. In referring to a new report by county public health officials that concluded that, since the gas leak has continued for so long, emissions levels could produce “significant long-term health effects, including cancer.” Antonovich said the report had identified benzene as the “chemical of greatest concern,” but the report also cited concerns about radon.
Indeed. Residents and children from areas far removed from Porter Ranch such as Northridge and Chatsworth are also reporting nose bleeds, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea migraine headaches, asthma attacks, respiratory infections, eye infections, ear infections, stomach ailments. Many of these symptoms also may indicate of radiation poisoning. Interestingly, fish have been reported to have died. Indoors.
The full details of the Aliso Canyon methane gas disaster has been held in check by the expected virtual news black-out by almost all news outlets including the supposed “alternative/progressive media.” Despite the magnitude of the story, it has only in recent weeks been taken seriously by the press. Across the daily news cycles offered to Americans the updates on this mega-disaster routinely and repetitively trivialized the leak. The cut and paste similarity between these scores of articles was marked. Most failed to focus on, much less investigate, the two central points; the removal of the safety valves by So Cal Gas and the complicity of California state employees. A quick review of the chronology of articles authored by five different LA Times staff writers over the course of the disaster highlights this publications disinterest in the biggest story in their own backyard.
Now, the Genie is most certainly out of the bottle. The California State Senate voted unanimously this past Thursday to order Southern California Gas Co. to stop using its wells at Aliso Canyon until they have been determined to be safe. The moratorium would prevent the gas company from injecting gas into the underground storage reservoir until all 115 wells have been inspected. The legislation, which now moves to the Assembly, also would halt any withdrawals of gas from 18 of the wells that, like the leaking one, are among the oldest at the facility. Now, the state Air Resources Board is considering rules establishing new monitoring requirements for natural gas storage sites, quarterly inspections for leaks and needed repairs and a prohibition on venting and flaring.
Well, all of that is too late in coming. The oversight agencies PUC and DOGGR have highly suspect track records when it comes to enforcement of their corporate charges as well as direct complicity in creating a pervasive environment of negligence within the industry. A lack of enthusiasm for enforcement has already been shown by the state Attorney General that leads to the Governor’s mansion. Maya Golden-Krasner, with the Center for Biological Diversity, agreed stating, “The Brown administration’s hands-off approach to regulating gas storage has cost the people of Porter Ranch dearly, and it’s clear that regulators still don’t get how hazardous these operations can be.”
Considering the documented lack of allegiance to the public, much less the environment, by this coven of corruption, it is not likely that So Cal Gas will experience justice at the hands of the State of California.
Fortunately, So Cal Gas has no such political support in civil court. Here a team of four different law firms, including the renowned Kennedy & Madonna LLP, are representing a large group of affected residents. Much of the truth regarding the negligence of SS-25 has come via their initial independent investigations, which not surprisingly differ markedly from data proffered by the soon-to-be plaintiff. Many questions remain unanswered but the important ones focus on responsibility. Unless So Cal Gas is willing to write a very large settlement check the facts will be borne out in court under oath. An interesting problem for a group not accustomed to the light of truth or being held to account.
“The controversy over this storage facility just began, quite frankly,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander. “We have vintage wells, there’s wells that have erosion.” Bolstering his assertion, Maya Golden-Krasner found this a “reasonable concern.” She continued, “Experts say smaller versions of the Aliso Canyon leak are happening all the time because California has no rules for well construction or gas storage fields, leaving it to gas companies to decide whether older equipment needs to be fixed or replaced. The leak may be stopped, but huge questions remain about the risks from gas-storage wells across California.”
The story of the biggest natural gas leak in US history is not over. SS-25 is dead. But what will be the results for Los Angeles area residents months, years or decades from now? According to Dr. David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at Univ. at Albany, “… Cancer isn’t going to occur tomorrow, it is going to occur 10-20-30 years from now in people that are exposed…” On the winds across the breadth of the Los Angeles and San Fernando Valleys has been scattered no less than 380,160,000 pounds of gaseous material. Most of it, in the long term, highly poisonous. Add to this the real possibility of large doses of radiation and the health risks are truly staggering.
Hence, so is the financial liability of So Cal Gas. But recent history applied to other corporately caused environmental disasters across America doesn’t bode well for justice. Or the public. Starting with the Exxon Valdez in pristine Alaska through the BP/ Gulf Coast oil disaster then along to the Kalamazoo River and Mayflower, AR tar sands oil spills corporations have, thanks to similar sub-sets of public officials under corporate control, an established pre-written script.
State litigation will huff-and-puff in the press maintaining the appearance of prosecution. Before the defendants see the inside of a court room, the state Attorney General will offer a settlement of all claims for money. That sum will be a mere fraction of the damages to the public, to which the defendant corporation [So Cal Gas] will gladly write the check. In lieu of this paltry fine the defendants will receive from the state indemnity from future litigation. Then the State regulators [PUC] will allow the defendant utility a tidy rate increase, which repays any lost revenue due to the unfortunate advent of said litigation.
The attorneys for the residents want the opposite; as much money as they can get. Money is the object; not justice, although they consider the two synonymous. However, as much as it would be nice to know the full and total truth of who caused this negligence, truth in this case will have a different purpose. So Cal Gas does not want any more snooping into the depths of their negligence, so court depositions and discover are this defendant’s worst nightmare. So, a fat settlement will be offered and accepted by the attorney’s, who will assure their clients to take it, and the defendants will thus effectively bar the facts from court. Of course there will be the de reguere release from future liability and subsequent disproportionate rate increase. The press will report on the victory for the residents and the surrounding public. All will be well. Perhaps.
So… Los Angeles residents and Porter Ranch locals will be left for the future to see for themselves how the drama of the Aliso Canyon methane gas disaster plays out. Will PUC, DOGGR, the Dept. of Conservation, the attorney General’s Office and the Governor put their constituents and their Oath of Office before corporate servitude and effect long-term and meaningful industry changes?
Or will the cast of this sad man-made tragedy produce, again, the predictable last act…?
Politicians at work.