The Aliso Canyon Gas Leak and the Porter Ranch Families: A Cautionary Tale?

HERE’S WHAT I KNOW-It’s been over 86 days since the Southern California Gas Company first reported the Aliso Canyon gas leak in the Porter Ranch community of the valley. The gas well, not expected to be contained until late February or early March at the earliest, has disrupted lives for many families in this suburban neighborhood. Over 2,200 residents have been temporarily displaced, housed in hotels and apartment buildings as far away as Warner Center and Westlake Village.

When students at Porter Ranch Community School and Castlebay Lane Charter School returned to classes after the winter break, they were no longer housed in their home schools. Back in December, the LAUSD board declared an emergency for these schools, both located within two miles of the gas leak. About 1,100 K through 8th grade students at Porter Ranch Community School are now housed on the Northridge Middle School campus; and 770 kindergarten through 5th grade students from Castlebay are housed at Sunny Brae Elementary School in Winnetka. In the months after the gas leak was first reported, absenteeism and visits to the schools’ health offices had increased; families had begun to choose independent study for their children. 

Could anything have been done to prevent the gas leak? Attorneys representing Porter Ranch families report that Southern California Gas Co. knew five years ago about the leaking wells in Aliso Canyon and had received a ratepayer increase to fund upgrades in 2013 -- but never replaced safety valves on its gas injection wells. 

LA County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich is asking fellow board members to join him in possibly curbing residential development in parts of the northern San Fernando Valley until, as Antonovich said in a statement released last week, “a thorough investigation can take place as to what caused the leak and what safeguards will be put in place to avoid a failure of this magnitude again.” 

One of the caveats involves halting development in Deerlake Ranch, a 314-home tract approved sixteen years ago. And Newport Beach-based Foremost Companies is in the process of pulling building permits for the 230-acre development north of the 118 Freeway at Topanga Canyon Boulevard, just 10 miles west of the entrance to the storage facility. Antonovich has asked county agencies to re-designate the area as permanent open space. 

Way back in 1989, before the area was developed, locals opposed overdevelopment, fearing traffic, depletion of water, and a strain on sewage lines and landfills. Environmental reports that outlined plans for the just under 3,400 homes that would be known as Porter Ranch contained no obvious references to the massive natural gas storage facility about a mile away. Despite the concerns of locals, the 1,300 acre development was approved by City Council in 1990 and became one of the largest residential and commercial projects in LA history. 

Twenty-five years later, families are squeezed into hotel rooms, surviving on takeout or restaurant meals. Kids must adapt to new schools and do their homework in tight quarters, unable to play with friends after school, play soccer or take karate in the neighborhood studio. Residents have suffered from various health issues caused by the methane gas exposure. 

Mothers and fathers, residents and business owners, activists and attorneys continue to mobilize to fight for what was lost and for the future. We must look at what has happened in Porter Ranch as a cautionary tale -- a tragedy that should not be repeated. Until the gas company can stop the leak and ensure the area is safe, any further development there should be curtailed.

(Beth Cone Kramer is a Los Angeles-based writer and CityWatch contributor.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

-cw

  

CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 6

Pub: Jan 19, 2016