More than 5,000 people in Porter Ranch, a community near Los Angeles, California, have been forced to evacuate their homes because of a hazardous gas leak. On October 23, methane, a gas made up of hydrogen (H) and carbon (C), began leaking from a well at the nearby Aliso Canyon Underground Storage Field.
So far, the leak has released more than 90,000 tons of methane into the environment—and that amount continues to grow. Workers from the Southern California Gas Company (SoCal Gas), which owns and operates the facility, have been working around the clock to fix the leak. They expect to be finished by the end of this month. Until then, the leak continues to disrupt residents’ lives. It also could have disastrous effects on the environment.
A DANGEROUS GAS
Methane, or natural gas, is highly flammable (easily set on fire). It’s used to power furnaces, water heaters, ovens and stoves, and clothes dryers in people’s homes. Methane’s explosive nature makes the leak extremely dangerous.
Methane gas is odorless and colorless. So a chemical with a smell similar to that of rotten eggs is added so people will be able to tell if there’s a gas leak. The smelly substance can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, nosebleeds, and dizziness. Many of the evacuated Porter Ranch residents have experienced these symptoms.
Because methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, it can also have a huge effect on the health of the planet. Greenhouse gases trap heat in Earth’s atmosphere and are believed to be the main cause of climate change. Human activities release methane into the air. It’s the second-most-emitted greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide. But methane is 25 times more powerful at trapping heat. And once it enters the atmosphere, it takes about 12 years to break down.
STOPPING THE LEAK
SoCal Gas still isn’t sure what caused the methane leak. But they have located its source, 3,000 feet below the ground. They are digging a new well to capture the leaking gas. Then the company plans to seal the leak.
On January 6, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Porter Ranch. Officials from California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, who have been testing the air quality in Porter Ranch, insist there are no long-term health risks from the leak. But two area schools will stay closed and evacuated residents will remain in hotels until the leak is stopped.
“This is one of the most disruptive, catastrophic environmental events that I’ve seen,” Los Angeles city councilman Mitchell Englander recently told reporters. “It’s a truly chaotic crisis.”