“Oh! Sure. Twice, just last week,” answered Porter Ranch resident Jim Baker to the question about whether the smell of methane gas was reaching his home. “Smells like, well… it’s an oily smell,” continued Jim. “No. You can’t always smell it. It’s when the wind is slack, that’s when it comes down on the houses.”
Indeed. Residents across the affluent north Los Angeles, CA suburb of Porter Ranch report the same smell. Not good: methane gas is poison. On day one of an on-scene look at the world’s largest natural gas leak, which every day spews uncontrolled at extremely high pressure the equivalent greenhouse gas pollution of 4.5 million cars, another distinct smell is becoming obvious: political corruption.
High above Porter Ranch natural gas well Standard Sesnon (SS)-25 has been blowing high pressure methane gas into the air for months. The exact date that the blow-out began is uncertain since the owner of SS-25, The Southern California Gas Company (Cal Gas), reluctantly admitted to the massive pipe rupture on Oct 23, 2015, but only after Porter Ranch residents began complaining of the oily smell and several different sicknesses. Documents show that this admission was at least two months after Cal Gas knew of the massive leak and that Cal Gas knew immediately it was due to their own negligence. Why? In order to save money, they had removed the mandatory “safety valves” from the aging well(s) instead of replacing them as required?
Does this not sound familiar?
In the first light of dawn, while braced against a fifty mile-per-hour westward gale, it was finally possible to fully see the expanse of Aliso Canyon. Standing on the edge of the steep east-facing ridge under a massive grey-galvanized metal stanchion, a huge set of thick grey power lines also swayed in the wind while descending from their supports into the canyon to the east. Looking east, the grey power lines arrived uninterrupted at a second stanchion on the other side, almost two miles away. After a very steep ascent to this position, which began prudently at first light, a perfect vantage point was finally reached high-up on this ridge. Before us, a panoramic view of an environmental disaster. To the left still higher up on the almost sheer northwest ridge, slowly illuminating under the rising sun, there it was: SS-25.
However, looking southwards to the right, an equally magnificent view. The scene of an unfolding human disaster far below. The Los Angeles basin and its 18.5 million people.
Littered with 115 aging petroleum and gas wells, Aliso Canyon resembles the wasteland of an old open-pit mine. Far below the ridge, a single paved service road snakes over uneven ground across the 3600 acre Aliso Canyon Underground Storage Facility. The road intersects scores of old dirt access roads leading to the various wells. Located in the lower southern portion of the Santa Susana Mountains, Aliso Canyon is a box canyon meaning that the topography allows only one way out. In the distance to the left of the grey power wires, much farther up on the sheer northwest wall sits the culprit: SS-25. Due to the wind storm today the roar of the leak cannot be heard, but on a reconnaissance hike two days before to a lower position the wind was almost dead calm. Ascending the ridge late that afternoon a strange rushing, metallic but hollow sound grew loader and louder. Then louder.
As resident Jim Baker had noted, and our earlier observations confirmed, when the wind was slack all that methane, which is heavier than air, has only one place to go: down. Being a box canyon with very high and steep walls and SS-25 on the wall of the top-most ridge, Aliso Canyon acts as a giant funnel. With the predominant winds being on-shore and easterly in direction the heavier methane is forced off the cliff wall into the open air space over the five-square-mile canyon. Six hundred feet below, the canyon floor begins to continually descend steeply south to the right, while its steep walls narrow ever tighter. Transforming into a smaller steep ravine called Limekiln Canyon, this provides the only downhill exit out of Aliso Canyon. Continuing to drop southward directly towards two sub-divisions of Porter Ranch, the ravine continues out-of-sight in the direction of America’s second largest population.
Today’s wind storm covered-up the noise of SS-25 which has so far leaked almost six billion cubic feet of methane from an existing reserve. Normally stored underground at 2800 psi (more than a scuba tank’s pressure) gas coming from as far away as Canada make up the 160 billion cubic feet currently stored. Cal Gas said on Monday, Jan. 18 that it has abandoned a plan to capture and burn the leaking natural gas so, without any other available short-term solutions, Cal Gas has run-off the pressure to approx.1200 psi. At its peak on Nov. 28, the well blew nearly 60,000 kilograms of methane per hour. By Dec. 22, that rate had dropped to 30,300 kilos, according to the state’s Air Resources Board. However, at the request of Cal Gas the PUC allowed them to stop after releasing just 25 million cubic feet of working gas, a violation of Calif. Governor, Jerry Brown recent emergency order. When considering Brown’s track record of allegiance to the oil industry, Cal Gas is not likely worried about state enforcement.
On Jan 3, 2011, Edmund G.”Jerry” Brown, Jr. came to the California Governor’s mansion for a second time as the progressive opposition to an admitted corporatist; Ebay president, Meg Whitman. In the election campaign Brown specifically drew on his previous legacy, from 1974 to 1982, as the youngest US governor in 111 years and one of the most progressive of that time. In doing so, Brown repeatedly touted his environmental record as proof of his claim to provide a renewed liberal agenda for the state. It took less than a year for Brown to show his true environmental colors.
In 2011 Occidental Petroleum wanted a permit for the use of the Inglewood Oilfield, but Acting Director of the Calif. Dept. of Conservation, Derek Chernow, and Elana Miller, as Cal. State Oil & Gas supervisor, refused citing the need for additional environmental review. On Oct 14, 2011, a previous Calif. governor, Gray Davis (who was ousted in a special state election), as the new legal council to Occidental, phoned Brown and demanded that both these public officials be fired. On Oct 28, Brown called both Chernow and Miller telling them to grant the permit or they would be removed from their posts. When they refused, Brown made good on his threat. He next replaced Chernow with Tim Kusic, who, on Jan 9, 2012, granted the permit to Occidental.
The punch-line came on Jan 13, when Occidental deposited $250,000 into a fund for Brown’s personal initiative, Proposition 30. Further investigation revealed that Occidental deposited a total of $1.3 million in the Prop. 30 account and that Brown received from the oil company a total of $2,104,570 starting well before his campaign to become California’s new populist governor.
Does any of this not sound familiar?
SS-25 began operation on Feb. 25, 1954 as an oil well. Converted to a gas storage well in 1973 and upgraded in 1979 evidence shows that it was last inspected on Oct. 21, 2014. The aging well was part of petroleum extraction that began in the 1930s. When the oil was used-up it left space for the equivalent of one cubic mile of highly compressed gas to be stored deep-down, one-and -a-half miles under a sandstone cap. SS-25 extends down 8,748 feet, reaching and penetrating a layer of nonporous rock, the capstone, that keeps the stored gas from escaping. Cal Gas began putting the majority of this underground vault to good use in 1971 when it paid $26.2 million for a long-term lease.
Cal Gas speculates that the leak is coming from a hole in a 7-inch-diameter pipe about five hundred feet below the surface. The pipe is, supposedly, surrounded by a cavity and then a cement casing that ends at about 990 feet down. The engineers surmise that the gas has forced its way through the soil to the surface. This is not surprising: documents allegedly show that the mandatory cement casing was also omitted by Cal Gas.
SS-25 was right now, however, blowing no less than 30,000 kilos every single hour of a deadly cocktail containing methane, benzene and formaldehyde far and wide. The blasting wind was increasing and just overhead, swaying in unison, the huge grey power lines crossing the canyon began to omit a strange sound of their own. A single long low frequency note, almost a hum, coming in time with each violent gust. In the early morning light it sounded so sad, like a long, slow drawn-out moan. A howl.
Evidence of the politically connected corruption of Cal Gas applied to the California public agencies of; the South Coast A.Q.M.D (Air Quality Management District), the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), DOGGR (Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources) seems undeniable. With the likely knowledge of the California Governor, these public officials are allegedly colluding to use their collective political power to stop this long, sad moan of environmental desperation from reaching the ears of a threatened public and turning, thus, into an international howl of public anger and outrage.
Good reason for anger and outrage was provided to the public at a meeting held this past Friday, Jan 22, 2016, at the Marriott Hotel in nearby Woodland Hills. Nearly eight hundred local residents packed into the main hall. Serious faces stared unsmiling toward the podium at the front of the room. Facts and documents were displayed for the crowd on two large projection screens. Porter Ranch residents report limited help from Cal Gas. Although over 2000 residents have been offered temporary relocation, it has been up to Cal Gas to decide what is the afflicted area per their unsubstantiated and very limited testing. Relocation has not been simple since few landlords are willing to accept a two- to three-month rental. Making matters worse mortgage banks are refusing to lend on Porter Ranch properties and adjacent sub-divisions leaving home owners for the moment with valueless properties. Schools have been relocated with 1,100 students from Porter Ranch Community School now attending at Northridge Middle School instead. Residents want mandatory testing that includes hundreds of locations; return of losses in property values, safety valves placed on all wells, and none of these expenses to be passed along to the innocent ratepayers. Cal Gas, ever in denial, issued a statement through their legal team that, regarding Cal Gas liability, “No taking of property has occurred.” Here, lies the endemic problem.
A packed crowd attends a meeting at the Marriott, Woodland Hills on Jan. 22, 2016
Opening with two US Congressmen, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA 30th Dist) and Rep. Steve Knight (R-CA 25th Dist) both in turn stated their support for residents and gave details subsequent to their demand for information from Cal Gas and an on-site inspection of the well-site. “The burden of proof is on Cal Gas to prove that the facility is safe,” stated Sherman in conclusion.
Congressman Knight addresses the crowd.
Aliso Canyon is the largest natural gas storage facility west of the Mississippi. Although maintenance was required of the 115 aging wells and their infrastructure-oversight being tasked to DOGGR- slowly this regulatory oversight began to disappear, more each decade, creating the expected fraudulent reaction by Cal Gas. So… when SS-25’s “sub-surface safety valve” came due for replacement, Cal Gas did not replace it, they simply removed it. Then they falsified documents to cover-up the monstrous risk to the public and the environment.
Does this not sound familiar?
So tempt Murphy they did, with the expected result. When SS-25 failed Cal Gas knew it but still they rolled the dice, hoping no one would notice. Their plot, however, smelled in more ways than one. So… some two months later many people did notice. Hence, this evening’s packed house of angry residents.
Both congressmen kept their presentations brief. They each departed immediately after finishing and without taking questions, despite the attempts of some listeners. Next up, Dr. Bardia Anvar, of the local Valley Urgent Care. With over one hundred residents having already required medical attention, he went over the chemicals being rained down on them, the health risks, the symptoms. His recommendation, “Get out of the area.” With rashes, nausea, dizziness, headaches and nose bleeds increasing in frequency, the cause is obvious. In addition to all the methane, which is also a greenhouse gas pollutant many times worse than CO2, benzene has also been detected which is highly carcinogenic. Limited testing by Cal Gas has shown that both these gases are settling in concentrations indiscriminately across the lower Porter Ranch hill side and valleys which makes sense due to the relative heaviness of each gas. On-going testing by UC Davis proves that the methane is indeed spreading far and wide via the atmosphere over Los Angeles since testing beyond this immediate area is limited due to Cal Gas denials. Still worse, when Methane is exposed to sunlight it transforms into formaldehyde which is heavier, very poisonous and also highly carcinogenic. After reviewing many patients who have relocated, Dr. Anvar noted, “It wasn’t until the residents moved out that they found out how bad things were.”
The heaviness of the released gases has had a tragic effect already; on pets. Cats particularly are dying. With dogs and cats being lower to the ground and using their noses to breathe, reports of dead or sick family pets are frequent. Dr. John Tenzes, a veterinarian toxicologist, spoke of the increased risk to pets and gave advice, which mostly amounted to keeping them indoors. Sadly, he concluded with how to properly handle the remains of a cherished loved one.
As seems the case with any quest for justice in America, applied to Porter Ranch and the L.A. basin reliance on elected and appointed public officials seems useless, if not foolhardy. So, the lawyers were left to provide any pretext of justice to the crowd of residents. Fortunately for those attending, next up was an attorney. Unfortunately for Cal Gas … one with a big reputation. To the podium stepped Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of the R.F.K. and senior partner with the environmental law firm, Kennedy & Maddona, LLP.
Popping to his feet and looking and talking like what his father might have become, he quickly by-passed the podium in favor of standing on the edge of the stage leaning towards the audience, microphone in hand. Arms waving, he began to speak – his trademark Kennedy-New England nasal drawl a pleasant reminder – with the confidence and passion of a politician from a bygone era. Kennedy proceeded to take his time, explaining in detail, while showing documents, a trail of governmental and regulatory agency corruption that has become far too pervasive.
For the next half-hour a series of charts, lists and documents were displayed that showed, at best, a laissez-faire attitude by regulatory agencies DOGGR and PUC. Complicity with Cal Gas seemed evident. Labeling this effort to avoid financial accountability by Cal Gas to the public and residents, “externalizing the cost of producing gas,” Kennedy summed the affair up as a, “subversion of democracy.”
Initially, Kennedy’s presentation re-enforced much of what had already been stated. Then; the smoking gun. A slide showing the very essence to the Cal Gas fraud: a copy of a mandatory testing report that was submitted to the Calif. Dept. of Conservation.
This report from the Oct. 2014 test, showing testing data and signed by a Cal Gas inspector, stated that the well had passed and, conspicuously, that the sub-surface safety valve had been inspected and had also passed. This was, of course, untrue since other documents obtained by Kennedy from Cal Gas show the safety valve was indeed removed and never replaced many years prior. “They decided it was too expensive for them to fix them,” said Kennedy. “So they removed the safety valves and decided to take their chances.”
Does any of this not sound familiar?
As with most states, California regulatory agencies are under direct control of a state commissions that oversees the oil and gas industry. Supposedly beholden to the “public interest,” these agencies were once the checks and balances of insuring this interest over the industry. DOGGR, the PUC and AQMD are all beholden to the California Department of Conservation, which is in turn under the direction of the Governor’s office. Subordinate to all: Cal Gas.
As Kennedy laid out the allegations and the documents it became clear that, as is repeatedly witnessed with environmental stories across the nation, this chain of command has been inverted. The PUC had exerted little involvement with Cal Gas leaving that to DOGGR which was charged with the issuing of well permits, reviewing inspections and enforcement. DOGGR was so lax that in 2011 the federal EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) filed a report regarding DOGGR’s routine and improper issuance of permits. SS-25 was under their watch. That was fine with Cal Gas.
South Coast AQMD has only come into play since the acknowledgement of the leak, however, predictably this agency had followed the party-line of Cal Gas: Deny… Deny. In the face of growing evidence to the contrary Cal Gas continued to minimize all risks and liabilities using their own test results and AQMD echoed this lack of concern while differing to Cal Gas’ reports. Responding finally to the obvious, and mounting public pressure, South Coast AQMD, on Jan 26, filed suit accusing Cal Gas of negligence in the “design, construction, operation and inspection of the wells.”
Over at the PUC, its commissioners have yet to express any serious concern. Public outrage has forced PUC to require independent testing, call for full disclosure by Cal Gas and an independent review of SS-25, but compliance by Cal Gas has been slow and inconclusive. PUC has so far been willing to accept all promises and assurances offered by Cal gas without foundation or requirement of results.
This was illustrated the next day at a public PUC ratepayer meeting held at the Woodland Hills Hilton on, Sat. Jan 20. There, after fully three months of local hardships and mounting independent evidence, the PUC commissioners placated a room full of frustrated residents, many for whom have been temporarily uprooted from their homes. The PUC regulators finally approved a comprehensive abatement order that required the Southern California Gas Co. to take immediate steps to contain the leak affecting Porter Ranch, permanently shut down the damaged well, establish a leak-detection system and conduct an independent health study. This would seem obvious, but after three-plus months of cover-up it was in reality, ludicrous.
As showcased by Kennedy this evening, none of this obfuscation absolves Cal Gas, and its minions from three prima facie conclusions:
One: a cocktail of invisible cancer causing poison is dispersing itself over the breadth of the Los Angeles valley.
Two: Cal Gas has negligently caused this disaster by fraudulently removing and failing to replace the safety valves. Their risk has literally “blown-up” in the faces of a largely unsuspecting public.
Three: If not for the complicity of the state agencies this disaster would not have ever happened.
For Cal Gas it was, “Cheaper to pay death payments!” assessed Kennedy. Indeed. How many other Aliso Canyon wells have been adulterated by Cal Gas in favor of profit?
As Kennedy unveiled his evidence other recent US environmental disasters easily came to mind to anyone who had closely followed the previous corporate play book of environmental cover-ups. The BP oil disaster, the Mayflower, Arkansas and Kalamazoo, Michigan tar sands pipe ruptures, the San Onofre Nuclear power plant frauds by utilities company; Southern California Edison, and last week the Flint, Michigan public drinking water supply atrocities. All followed a cookie cutter fact pattern much like Aliso Canyon: US elected politicians and appointed government regulatory officials with a personal allegiance, not to their affected constituents or populations, but to the greed of corporations that don’t care about the environment and who pull their political and financial purse strings as an effective substitute.
Other recent local evidence of this was the long history of Southern California’s, San Onofre Nuclear power plant. Exemplifying the PUC’s allegiance to its corporate masters, at the request of electrical power provider, Southern California Edison, the PUC shifted over $2 billion of SCE obligations to the ratepayers, which Edison subsequently spent on fraudulently re-designing and manufacturing cheaper versions of the two essential gigantic “steam generators.” This allowed for Edison to continue to operate the power plant beyond its expiration date. Both generators failed within eighteen months of installation after emitting radioactive material into the air and causing a local panic and temporary shutdown. When the public outcry was heard by the PUC, the directors did literally nothing. When So. Cal. Edison’s fraud was finally beyond all dispute and San Onofre was ordered shut for good, the PUC gave Edison one last present: they required the afflicted ratepayers to pay for Edison’s lost future income and all shut down costs.
Does this not sound familiar?
To Ray Lutz it does. As National Coordinator of “Citizen’s Oversight Projects” (COPS), his organization was the focal point for the collective San Onofre shutdown effort. He knows, too well, about the PUC. In announcing this week, on Jan 29, COPS’s formal petition of the PUC for an investigation into Aliso Canyon, he stated flatly, “History is repeating itself before our eyes…Unfortunately, there is little hope that our regulatory agency [PUC] will do its job.”
On top of the Northeast ridge above where SS-25 sits, relief well, Porter 39a, is drilling at 100 rpm seven thousand feet down. It is reportedly within six-hundred feet of hopefully hitting its target. Cal Gas reports this will take only five more weeks. Its trajectory is to approach SS-25 at an angle, then parallel the pipe for nearly 6,000 feet before angling into the concrete casing where the pipe meets the capstone. Should they miss their target there is a second relief well. Cal Gas reported that they would begin drilling there no later than Jan 20. Sitting some three hundred yards to the right of Porter 39a, from our vantage point high on the wind-swept ridge there is a problem with this plan; it’s vacant. The second relief well is a mere concrete pad with no sign of activity or drilling equipment on it. This broken promise emphasizes Cal Gas’ level of concern for PUC enforcement and its preparedness for disaster.
As for federal interest in the nation’s biggest natural gas disaster, the EPA has refused to take jurisdiction despite the magnitude of the disaster. This may mean a further financial windfall for Cal Gas, which may avoid staggering per-cubic-foot pollution penalties similar to those levied at BP for its oil spill.
Arriving once again at the bottom of Aliso Canyon after a forty-minute shuffle down the loose rocky sheep trail leading to the houses below, is was time to draw a deep breath. The wind continued to howl but the low moan of the grey wires was long lost in the distance. Here at the bottom, banging noisily against a newly installed six-foot-high vertical metal pipe was a strange stainless steel tank with a pressure gauge. It was marked, “Entech: Silonite 6L Canister.” It turned out to be gas collection can.
Looking North past the gas collection can
Nearby, on either side were houses and beyond that more houses and then the L.A. basin full of houses. Getting in the car to leave I slammed the door just a little bit harder than necessary. As the steel collection can clanged its warning into the wind, just beyond it, looking back up towards the high ridges of Aliso Canyon, a wondrous morning panorama. The billowing hill grasses thrashing about while shining in every shade of silver and gold against a pure blue sky backdrop from a quickly rising sun of a new day.
Some fifteen hundred feet above: SS-25. The biggest methane gas disaster in US history is, right now, raging out of control. For what?
Silver and Gold.
Does this not sound familiar?
In declaring the emergency, the governor notes the widespread disruption the gas leak has caused and reiterates the state’s efforts to help fix the problem.
All state agencies will utilize state personnel, equipment, and facilities to ensure a continuous and thorough state response to this incident.
Former Columnist: PRESS TV/IRAN
Journalist / Photographer
Writer & Contributor To: Veterans Today;
Western Journalism; Intellihub;
Shift Frequency; Fars News Agency;
Blacklisted News; Before It’s News;
Common Dreams; Activist Post.
Top Image: Aliso Canyon looking north