Today, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a State of Emergency over a methane leak that has been flooding the Los Angeles suburb of Porter Ranch for the past several months. The leak, which began in October, stems from a damaged pipeline operated by Southern California Gas Co. The company is still unsure of how to stop the leak, which is likely to continue sickening nearby residents and contributing immensely to greenhouse gas outputs for at least the next two months. Many commentators, including famed advocate and researcher Erin Brokovich, have called it “the worst environmental disaster since the BP oil spill of 2010.”
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The public health impacts of the leak have been tremendous so far. Methane is not only highly flammable, but can have serious health impacts. The NIH explains that methane exposure at high concentrations can cause headache, dizziness, weakness, vomiting, and loss of coordination. Though methane itself poses risks, the L.A. County Department of Public Health determined that mercaptans – nontoxic odorants added to natural gas – are to blame for current health effects. Residents have reported headaches and nosebleeds, which has forced the evacuation of over 2000 residents from their homes.
CBS reported that these relocated residents are part of a larger group of more than 6500 residents who have filed for help in the wake of the crisis. Though many are still in need of assistance and criticism of the company and the government is running high, activists in Porter Ranch have evaluated the incident from an environmental justice perspective and determined that they have been luckier than many. According to the LA Times, activists from the group Save Porter Ranch have noted that the wealth of their neighborhood has probably played into the relatively swift response and highly public discussion surrounding the leak, while poorer communities and communities of color are ignored. “There’s other communities with probably worse problems than us, for decades longer, that don’t get relocated,” activist Matt Palucko told the LA Times.
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In addition to public health impacts effects, this disaster may have serious climate-related implications. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas; according to the EPA, methane’s impact on climate change is 25 times greater than carbon dioxide. The leak is estimated to be releasing nearly 70,000 pounds of methane on an hourly basis, and may end up accounting for about a quarter of California’s methane emissions for the year.
Though the source of the leak has been identified, Southern California Gas Co. has struggled to find a solution that would stem the flow of the methane. As soon as the leak was discovered, the company tried to plug the well, but several attempts were unsuccessful. They are opting to drill two ‘relief wells’ to divert the flow of gas, but this will be a lengthy and difficult process that may not be completed until March. In addition to the state of emergency, Gov. Brown also called for enhanced safety measure and inspections at gas storage facilities to prevent future incidents within the widespread and still-expanding natural gas industry.
To watch video footage of the leaking methane, visit the Environmental Defense Fund’s YouTube Channel.