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As The North SFV Burns, Worries About The Aliso Canyon Gas Storage Facility Ignites

New fire revives concerned about gas facility which remains unshuttered.

Screen grab from ABC7 special coverage shows flames at the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility

In the early hours of October 11, as the Saddleridge fire spread from its originating point in Sylmar, residents of Porter Ranch and Granada Hills were given mandatory evacuation orders. As many were packing up belongings in their cars, some wondered what will happen if the flames hit the wells at the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility.

The SoCalGas site, situated alongside Porter Ranch on Oat Mountain, was responsible for the worst gas release in US history, starting on October 23, 2015, when well SS-25’s casing failed and started spewing out some 100,000 tons of methane in the four month period before it was sealed permanently.

The storage site, the biggest in the country west of the Mississippi, has been the origin place of several fires since the repurposed oil field started operating in 1973.

Even before part of the oil field was sold by Getty Oil and turned into a gas storage field, a company of Texas oil well firefighters, headed by the legendary Paul “Red” Adair, came to Oat Mountain and stopped a 1968 blaze after six days.

His company was pressed into service again in January 1975 to put out a raging natural gas fire that lasted ten days. It took Adair and his firefighters several days to snuff out the fire.

In 2008, a downed power line on SoCalGas property sparked the Sesnon Fire that blackened 14,700 acres, destroyed 15 homes, and caused one death on the 118 freeway. Post blow out, there were additional fires that have started on the facility, including ones in June 2016, May 22, 2017, and October 19, 2016.

A major wildfire which didn’t start in the San Fernando Valley did threaten the area in October 2003. But though creating smoky conditions in the area, it managed to skirt Porter Ranch and the Aliso Canyon facility due to winds that switched direction, causing the fire to head north toward Stevenson Ranch in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Over the years there have been a number of fires that have been caused by ruptured gas lines. Some of these ruptures have been caused by earthquakes, most notably by the San Francisco quake of 1906, the Northridge quake of 1994 (resulting in a number of homes destroyed on Balboa Blvd.), and the Ridgecrest quakes of 2019 (which destroyed two houses due to ruptured lines).

As for fires relating to underground gas storage facilities, there has been a number of this type of disaster.

In the Moss Bluff facility in Texas, a casing in one of the wells failed in August 2004, which resulted in a large release of gas and an uncontrolled fire lasting for more than six days.

In January 2001, in Hutchinson, Kansas, a wellbore failure caused natural gas to leak from the Yaggy storage field, migrate 7 miles through an underground river, rise to the surface through abandoned wells in Hutchinson and blow up. The explosions and fire damaged 26 businesses and caused two deaths.

Because of this disaster, Congress passed the PIPES Act (Protecting our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety Act), which included new language on storage inspections, enhanced overall safety standards and provided funding for enforcement by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The Aliso Canyon blowout proved to be an impetus for getting the legislation passed.

A year ago, a fire that ignited in a Bay Point, California underground natural gas storage facility resulted soon after a nearby gas fire. An hour after the initial fire was extinguished, a second fire was discovered in a storage unit. About 4,000 residents were ordered to be evacuated from the area, about thirty miles from San Francisco.

SoCalGas gate in red circle, the gas wells to the north. On ForestWatch GLS map.

Food and Water Watch issued further information about why the Saddleridge fire should be a concern for anyone who lives in the northern San Fernando Valley: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1cZSZ6zX3XxDoazpa3pljypVNIAeDeA58/view?fbclid=IwAR2_paVdhN3P72Cs3NtRHgx00m36FcF8bAkkNZVu1qTJaCKlmjndqydceTw

“It is difficult to find a scenario that is comparable to what is unfolding near Aliso Canyon with the raging Saddleridge Fire, but one thing is for sure: the methane stored beneath the Earth is highly flammable and burns rapidly.

“As it is, storage wells pose high risk of accidents as they are often not designed for gas storage. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Pipelines and Hazardous Safety Administration’s Emergency Response Handbook (Guide 115, for Flammable Gases), gas is easily ignited by heat, sparks from flames and upon ignition will form ‘explosive mixtures with air.’ Alarmingly, ‘vapors may travel to the source of ignition and flash back’ and ‘containers may explode when heated.’

“In addition to the 61 active gas storage wells, Aliso Canyon is riddled with associated and interconnected infrastructure including combustible petroleum tanks and gas odorization tanks, and a labyrinth of pipelines. One can go to the National Transportation Safety Board to see a host of fossil fuel related accident reports, many of which are incidents related to explosions at smaller scale infrastructure projects or sites. These explosions can cause serious, large scale harm. In 2010, a single PG&E pipeline explosion in San Bruno killed 8 people, injured 58, demolished 38 homes and ravaged 70 more. Imagine several pipeline bombs going off at one time. If the Saddleridge Fire meets Aliso Canyon and ignites the stored gas, pipelines and other infrastructure, the explosion could be truly historical.”

Screen shot from ABC7 coverage showing fire trucks at SoCalGas storage facility

When the Saddleridge fire was heading to Porter Ranch in the early hours of October 11, Los Angeles County and City fire trucks were dispatched to the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility to try to prevent the flames from reaching the wells. SoCalGas workers were evacuated and operations were ordered temporarily ceased by fire officials. Some residents wondered if the facility had been permanently closed after the blowout, the firefighters and equipment could have been directly used to protect neighborhoods instead.

SoCalGas monitor showing methane level at 3,000 times normal as flames approach site

During this time, some residents checked the methane monitors that the utility operates (as part of the September 2016 plea bargain with the county in criminal court). Three of the monitors registered above “normal” readings, with monitor 7 showing a maximum of 64.3ppm at 2:20 am, and monitor 6 a reading of 35.5ppm an hour later. SoCalGas issued a notice that “It appears elevated readings caused by heat/smoke/fire & NOT a natural gas leak.” But many residents mentioned on Facebook that they do not believe that statement. Since the fire began, SoCalGas had not sent out any emails to residents who had been on the Aliso notification list in the past.

Another SoCalGas monitor showing methane emissions an hour later.

One concern of those in a fire area is the exposure to particulate matter. Dr. Jeffrey Nordella, who has been looking at the issue of how particulate matter from Aliso could be affecting the health of North Valley residents, advised residents to use a respirator while the air quality is poor.

AQMD issued advisory morning of October 11, 2019

The South Coast Air Quality Management District issued an advisory in the morning of October 11, and tweeted it at 11:48 am. It did give information about specific types of respirators recommended, with a link provided for more information. NBC4 aired a segment around 2:30 pm, during its special fire coverage, with detailed information about the elevated PM2.5 level particulates of concern and how to protect oneself. The Los Angeles County department of Public Health didn’t issue its smoke advisory until later, with a tweet at 3:02 pm. Its advisory didn’t have specific recommendations about the types of masks to use if venturing outside.

County Dept of Public Health issued advisory the afternoon of October 11, 2019

One former resident of Chatsworth, Nancy Hernandez was keeping tabs on when these advisories were issued. She said she finally saw the advisory pop up on the Public Health website around 3 pm, some 12 hours after Porter Ranch residents had to evacuate the area. “The Department of Public Health failed the community yet again. I spent all morning and afternoon sending out messages via social media, texts and phone calls advising residents to wear respirators.” She further suggested that those who live near Aliso should stock up on P100 respirators. Other residents felt this type of advisory should have been boiler-plated and ready to be released, considering that the county experiences wildfires every year.

Save Porter Ranch’s president and co-founder Matt Pakucko said, “Fires have churned up all the contaminants that were covering the hillsides for miles around. Those again were sent airborne and have to be considered.” He added, “And all our air filters (provided by SoCalGas per court order after the blowout) should be part of peoples’ insurance claims.”

Even as the fire danger in Porter Ranch practically dropped to zero, the remaining soot and particulate matter became troublesome, especially at the schools. One Castlebay Elementary School parent Hayley Wood found out that her son’s school was full of soot and ashes, even indoors. In addition, the air conditioning wasn’t working. She asked her mother to pick him up at 9 am. Parents contacted the superintendent’s office. The principal had sent a request to the school district for the school to get cleaned.

At Van Gogh Elementary in Granada Hills, parents are holding a protest after school. Teachers were also frustrated as the environment inside classrooms were unacceptable.

The SoCalGas gate in Porter Ranch on October 12, 2019. Photo by Patty Glueck

Also weighing in on the danger from the gas storage facility was the Food & Water Action California State Director Alexander Nagy. “As the Saddleridge Fire rages through Aliso Canyon storage facility, we fear the worst for our friends, colleagues and neighbors. As homes are on fire in Porter Ranch and Granada Hills, the blaze at the gas storage facility is burning contaminated soil threatening to send toxins into the atmosphere. We are enraged that Governor Newsom has dragged his feet on closing Aliso Canyon storage facility, despite repeated promises to protect the community.

“As the fourth anniversary of the blowout at Aliso Canyon approaches in just days, families should not once again face this threat — one that could have been avoided if the governor and state regulators took timely action to shut the facility. It is not too late for Governor Newsom to protect the health and safety of local families and shut down Aliso Canyon immediately.”

The issue of the possibility of contaminated particulates being released into the environment by the smoke was not lost on many residents, especially given concerns about contaminants released following the Woolsey fire in November 2018. That fire originated on the Santa Susana Field Laboratory site, which was closed down in 1998 due to chemical and radioactive contamination after years of development and testing of testing of liquid propelled rocket engines, nuclear reactors, and liquid metals research.

And just this year, a study was released by a research team led by Diane A. Garcia-Gonzales that concluded: Evidence suggests that a broad range of hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) were co-emitted during elevated methane emissions; evidence was found that the final well kill attempts were associated with particle emissions likely from the SS25 well site, and accidents at natural gas storage facilities have the potential to release harmful pollutants into proximate communities.

Friday morning Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for Los Angeles and Riverside countries, with a request for assistance from FEMA.

Certainly this latest reminder that the gas storage facility presents a danger to residents will be part of the message presented next week during the fourth anniversary of the onset of the blowout. One event will be a rally and press conference outside the SoCalGas gate at 12801 Tampa Avenue in Porter Ranch. Hosted by Save Porter Ranch, Food & Watch Watch California, SoCal 350 Climate Action, San Fernando Valley Young Democrats, Sunrise Movement LA, and Extinction Rebellion LA, there will be a call to action directed toward Governor Newsom.

Following the anniversary activities, will be the Aliso Canyon health effects town hall which had to be rescheduled due to the fire. The new date will be on November 2, from 1:30 pm to 5pm at the Freedom Center, 9200 Owensmouth Ave.

Pakucko summed up the experience, “Our hearts go out to North San Fernando Valley fire victims, which includes thousands of Save Porter Ranch members and supporters. On top of the actual loss, victims were forced to worry about something else going horribly wrong at the deteriorating North Valley, Aliso Canyon Gas facility, that was also full of flames. First responders and sheer luck kept this from becoming another SoCalGas disaster.

“Los Angeles has been warned, by the 2015 North Valley gas blowout, three fires there since, the damning revelations from the Root Cause Analysis of the blowout, and the July 2019, 6.4 and 7.1 earthquakes. How many more warnings until the “catastrophic loss of life” happens, at that facility, like SoCalGas already warned us about? Governor Gavin Newsom: Shut that gas facility down NOW!”