Is the Aliso Canyon Gas Storage Site Safe?

I was going to write a story summarizing the recent open house SoCalGas held to update the community about the turbine project and other issues. The latest one was attended by 23 San Fernando Valley residents over four one-hour sessions as part of a program mandated by The Porter Ranch Settlement Agreement of 2009 agreement to provide information for the public about the Gas Company’s turbine replacement program at Aliso Canyon.

The last time I attended one of these open houses was in 2016 in which attendees circulated in the room to talk with various representatives standing in front of signs. This year’s event was structured differently in that the group heard from one representative at a time covering the topics. I came armed with some questions passed on to me from those actively involved in the community, but it felt as if many of the answers seemed to come from a determined set of pre-prepared replies. Thus, my desire to dig in with further details that I found with just a little bit of research.

The SoCalGas staff started with an explanation of the gas storage process, including the source of the gas SoCalGas obtained (from Blythe, Needles, and from out-of-state suppliers sent to California via pipeline).

Then the injection process was described with the gas being sent through a scrubber to rid the gas from debris, and then it is sent to a compressor. When it is withdrawn from the storage reservoir, the gas is processed again and separators are used to remove oil and water. A dehydration process is used to dry the gas out even more.

The presence of oil brings up a concern of a number of residents that I’ve talked to recently after discovering that crude oil is stored on the site. Crude oil is considered a hazardous material according to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Center for Disease Control in that among its components are polycyclic aromatic, hydrocarbons, benzene, toluene, and other carcinogens.

“Yet again we hear from the horse’s mouth that crude oil must be removed from the stored gas at Aliso Canyon. Is this really new information for SoCalGas, the agencies or the regulators? If so, then they’re professionally inept and wholly unqualified to hold the positions they occupy? The result of their ineptitude was hundreds of thousands of children, seniors, adults and animals being forced inhale toxic crude oil over four months without so much as a warning to wear a mask. How is the withholding of that critical information not a crime?” stated Andrew Krowne, a co-founder of the Aliso Canyon Community Action Committee.

The Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council sent the California Public Utilities Commission, the agency charged with overseeing SoCalGas, a letter dated October 30, 2018, about the same issue, indignant that the gas company had never informed the residents about the presence of crude oil being pulled from its wells.

The PRNC letter to the CPUC:

The different areas of the facility that need to be maintained were discussed next by Station Operations Manager (Storage) Todd Brewer. These include equipment such as generators, trucks, compressors, pumps, fans, dehydration plants, and computerized systems. In addition, there are areas that need to be maintained, based on compliance required by the different regulatory agencies such as the California Public Utilities Commission, the Department of Transportation, and the Air Quality Management District. Other systems and items being maintained are the various instruments that require routine calibration, the fence line monitoring equipment, tank farms, brush clearance, and odorizing equipment.

When asked if there is currently any injection or withdrawal of gas at the site, the answer was “We’re currently not injecting. We’re basically full right now,” as limited by the CPUC, up to 34 BCF.

I brought up that per SB380, the site should have still remained closed until a root cause analysis was completed. The bill, signed by Governor Jerry Brown in May 2016, states that there is to be no further injection in the Aliso Canyon wells until “a comprehensive review of the safety of the gas storage wells at the facility is completed.”

The SoCalGas response at my question was that it was the state regulators’ decision.

As far as the question by one resident present at the open house about whether Aliso is safe, the gas managers say there’s no reason to believe it’s not safe. The managers discussed how they use scenarios as far as earthquakes. That every year, they conduct an active drill to test their emergency response.

I mentioned that during the 1994 Northridge quake well 4–0 had collapsed. I added that many residents are concerned that with the Santa Susana fault running through each of the wells, and that Storage Engineering manager James Mansdorfer had warned in the April 23, 2009 email he sent to Rudy Weibel, the Director of Storage, about the danger of a catastrophic result in the case of a major quake if several wells collapse at once. So Cal Gas claimed that there wasn’t a release of gas with the 1994 quake.

Unfortunately, residents feel that the area may not be so lucky with the next major quake. According to the US Geological Survey report issued last year, there’s a high probability of a quake in Southern California of at least a magnitude of 6.7 (the magnitude of the 1994 Northridge quake) within the next 30 years. About a 97 percent chance of a quake, with a 59 per cent chance of the southern end of the San Andreas fault erupting during that time period. According to renowned earthquake expert, Dr. Lucy Jones, a quake on the San Andreas fault will cause massive damage in Southern California. “Everything that crosses the fault will be broken. So that’s roads, railways, gas pipelines, water systems, electric transmission lines. All of these things cross the fault and will be now offset 10 to 30 feet,” said Jones. In addition, the energy generated by the San Andreas could set off other faults located in the area.

According to the California Council on Science and Technology report released on January 18, 2018, in the case of earthquakes, wells could fail in ways that lead to LOC (loss of containment), and certainly surface infrastructure is vulnerable to damage

There is a seismic study being done, the gas company managers explained, and will soon be published per the SoCalGas managers. One of the reps said that after a quake, they would start looking at the wells and inspect them.

Another safety concern that was asked about was fire safety as Aliso Canyon is located in a high fire zone. In the mind of some residents was the 2008 fire that had started on SoCalGas property due to a downed power line, as well as the recent fires in California which have been attributed to the utilities. To address the issue, the managers explained that weed abatement is one of the main methods the gas company uses to keep the danger of fire down. It was pointed out that fires are usually generated during periods of high winds and when that is happening, SoCalGas will shut down their power, but also noted that Southern California Edison power lies run through the site too. The gas company has a fire prevention plan and has collaborated with LA County Fire and LAFD to get those agencies acclimated as to the Aliso Canyon topography. Utility water is also available as a resource if needed, and a helipad has been approved.

The next part of the open house concerned the infrastructure, emphasizing that post-blowout, a rigorous inspection was done on the wells. The 114 wells were taken off line and isolated for the first phrase. 62 have completed the second round of all the inspection and approved by CPUC to be put in service last year. Some of the wells have been completely abandoned and plugged. There are others that are in the process of waiting for authorization.

Not mentioned was a pressure build up that had been detected in 13 of the 39 wells within a month of returning to service in late July 2017. Notifications of this event were not sent to members of the community, who learned about the problem from a source other than the gas company when a letter was sent to the CPUC about the problem. Residents who backed up the Los Angeles County action to attempt to delay the reopening of the storage site were again wondering if, despite the “rigorous testing” of the Aliso wells, the community shouldn’t be concerned about its safety. The pressure problems prompted this statement from the group Food and Water Watch, “Aliso Canyon will never be safe and needs to be immediately closed.”

I then asked about subsurface safety valves. It has been established that well SS-25, the source of the largest gas release in US history, had a SSSV in the well, but it was removed in 1979 and was never replaced. In a December 2015 interview, SoCalGas vice president Roger Schwecke said the safety valves in SS-25 and similar wells were old and leaking when they were removed. It was also difficult to find replacement parts.

The response from the gas company to my question is that it hasn’t been fully examined how SSSVs would be able to operate with a bi-direction flow. But there does seem to be differing opinions about the use of the device in gas wells. The absence of a SSSV became a bone of contention for residents, some elected officials , and even the CPUC, who requested information in January 2016 on the utilization in the damaged well.

After the blowout, then state Sen. Fran Pavley, who represented much of the affected area, introduced legislation, SB 887, which would require subsurface valves for all urban wells, including those in Aliso Canyon, Playa del Rey and Santa Clarita. Under current state law, wells within 300 feet of a home or 100 feet of a roadway or recreational facility must have subsurface valves. She said the existing regulation at the time of the disaster was outdated. “Three hundred feet is not enough. It should be a far greater distance,” she said. “I don’t have that magic number but definitely more than a mile. We can do better.”

Congressman Brad Sherman, who represents the district just below Aliso Canyon, commented about valves in a press release issued the day after the facility was “certified” by the Department of Conservation to return to service. “They refuse to commit to subsurface safety valves. Not now. Not later. One of the tragic ironies of the Aliso Canyon leak is that the broken well, SS25, had previously been equipped with a subsurface safety valve that was removed in 1979 and never replaced.” The statement continued, “The state should require deep subsurface positive-pressure safety valves on all active wells at subsurface natural gas storage facilities.”

When seeking a restraining order against reopening Aliso prior to a root cause analysis, the County of Los Angeles, said in its brief, “Southern California Gas Co. should be required to install subsurface safety shut-off valves on all of its natural gas wells in Los Angeles County in order to prevent a leak like the one that lasted for months in Aliso Canyon.”

Mansdorfer, the former manager who had warned about the Santa Susana fault, had suggested adding the subsurface safety valves to all the wells. He had noted that new forms of safety valves have become more reliable.

The next part of the open house presentation concerned the fence line monitors that SoCalGas was ordered to operate by the court’s decision in the criminal charges brought by LA County in 2016. This monitoring system consists of eight sets of monitors installed during the fourth quarter of that year, stretching from Mason Avenue, east to ET Park. Some of the corresponding numbers to locations are monitor 1 (Mason Avenue), monitor 5 (The Highlands), monitor 6 (the entrance to the SoCalGas facility on Sesnon at Tampa), and monitor 8 (Reseda Blvd.)

The monitoring is done on a continuous basis for methane at low levels. When a level of 8ppm is noted, the reading is investigated at that point.

John Clarke, station operations manager at SoCalGas, noted that the manufacturer of the monitoring equipment has stated that too high a level of moisture in the air could affect the monitors and that at 70 percent or higher, the monitors often register blips. With extreme conditions in temperature, fog, combustion sources in the houses to the south (from heaters, fireplaces, pool heaters), even the cattle that graze to the west of the site, there could be blips. He pointed out that on the fence line site that the public can access there is data about wind and humidity. The baseline number of 2.0ppm (parts per million) was established by the AQMD and CARB (California Air Resources Board) based on Burbank levels.

As for anomalies, SoCalGas said, “We are letting the public know in our investigation. We’re open and honest at what we find.”

I brought up the public notifications and said that at least on two occasions, notifications about extremely high readings weren’t sent to community members until after social media erupted.

On December 1, 2017, monitor number 8 registered a 56.1ppm at 7:25pm. Members of the community, including myself, took to social media that evening to inform local media and elected officials. We included the use of the @socalgas twitter handle so the Gas Company will know about the tweets, and almost immediately we received this response from SoCalGas: “This was a planned maintenance event. Please look for a community notification with more information coming shortly. Thank you.”

SoCalGas monitor showing a 56.1ppm spike on December 1, 2017

It wasn’t until after 11pm that a notification was sent via email to community members who were on the list to receive them. Almost four hours after the release of gas.

Then, on December 18, 2017, residents were feeling the usual symptoms when levels of methane were high. The fence line site was checked and it was realized that it had been “off line” for some 24 hours. After several complaints were called in to the AQMD, an investigator went to the SoCalGas office and found out that the monitors had been set to private, and there had been a reading of 66.6ppm at one point on December 18. The AQMD filed a public nuisance complaint as a result of this leak. The notification that was released by SoCalGas wasn’t received by community members until almost three hours after the “unplanned release of natural gas.”

SoCalGas monitor showing a spike of 66.6ppm on December 18, 2017

When these events were brought up at the open house, the SoCalGas reps said they weren’t aware of them and would have to check them out. I pointed out that at the Los Angeles City Council meeting on December 5, 2017, a SoCalGas representative was there as a result of a mercaptan spill incident in West Los Angeles the week before. Councilman Mitchell Englander, who represents the north west Valley, including Porter Ranch, the community adjacent to Aliso, brought up the December 1 spike, saying he was disappointed that once again, he had to find out about leaks at Aliso from the residents, and not from the gas company (the first time he had this same public discussion with SoCalGas officials was at the December 1, 2015 city council meeting).

I asked why there can’t be more timely notifications. “Why is it that we have to go on social media and ask what is going on. We’re talking about hours before we got notifications from your office. What is going on? Are you checking with legal? Why is it happening that way more than a couple of times, but that was two very extreme examples.”

About sending notifications, the public affairs rep said “I would say that we take responsibility and look into it. It would be irresponsible to the community for us to send notifications to the community without doing our due diligence. Otherwise, we’re just sounding an alarm . We have to be extremely careful and thorough in our inspection of the situation and I think that’s the logic. It’s a lot more complex than issuing an email.”

I pointed out that when these incidents happen, that residents want to know immediately what’s going on so they can take action if desired, including leaving the area for a few hours if possible. Especially if they have children, pets, or are elderly. I suggested that she mention this to her management to look into.

I am adding screenshots that were taken by residents and myself that illustrate “blips” found on the SoCalGas monitors at times of low humidity. Hopefully when the new monitors are installed, as per the August 2018 Aliso Agreement, they will be more reliable and will indeed register amounts of toxic chemicals residents are concerned about, including benzene.

SoCalGas monitor for October 13, 2017 showing a spike of 24.9ppm (one of many screenshots taken of “blips”)

One thing to remember is that an official health study to track the effects of Aliso has still not been started. Yet, many residents have been frustrated that more than three years after the onset of the blowout, there’s still just talk about studying how the toxic chemicals that were emitted have affected the nearby population. The AQMD had ordered the gas company to come up with a study as part of the January 23, 2016 abatement order. A health panel had convened that fall to determine a true study will cost a minimum of $35-million. Yet, lawyers representing the AQMD governing board (who weren’t involved in listening to residents, while the hearing board had on several occasions) choose to settle with SoCalGas for a $1-million “study.” Last August, a settlement among the state, LA County, and the gas company announced a $25-million study.

A recent Facebook poll demonstrated a lack of trust in the LA County Health Department, which was given some authority in conducting the health study by the Aliso Settlement.

All the while, families have continued to suffered, even after well SS-25 was sealed, and the gas company had made the repairs it claims to make its facility safe. One local resident Bobbie Jo Santizo said, “My son attended PRCS for one school year (kindergarten year). He had never had a nose bleed until attending that school and got them about once a month. He left PRCS in June and hasn’t had a nose bleed since. We live in Northridge.” Many other residents also continue to note feeling ill while near the site.

As for health concerns, residents should be aware that local physician is currently conducting a study. The information is here:

Finally using her J-school degree for good. #CountdownToShutDown2020 Aliso Canyon