Sierra Canyon High School

Clearing the air on the Aliso Canyon gas leak

More than a year has passed since the Aliso Canyon gas leak was first plugged on Feb. 11, 2016. Despite potentially serious long-term consequences for the environment and lingering controversies about Aliso’s future, for the moment, Porter Ranch may be able to take a breather.

“We’re not seeing any indication that air quality in Porter Ranch is [currently] being affected by the Aliso Canyon storage facility,” Sam Atwood, Media Office Manager for the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD), told The Standard in a phone interview.

SCAQMD, which is responsible for monitoring Porter Ranch’s air quality, recently settled a suit against SoCalGas for 8.5 million dollars on Feb. 8.

While Sierra Canyon escaped most of the leak’s worst effects, with the air quality on both campuses testing safe, several members of the school community nevertheless chose to relocate. The gas leak initially had an effect on last year’s enrollment for Sierra Canyon Day Camp, according to Director of Camp Admission Erin Anderson. Before the leak was plugged, about 100 campers fewer than predicted had signed up for summer camp, which usually has about a thousand sign-ups.

“We did see lower enrollment than we usually do; after the leak was sealed, people were still a little cautious, but we saw enrollment pick up after March… by the end of the enrollment period, we were actually right on par with the enrollment from the previous summer,” Anderson said.

About 20-50 people per month reported health problems associated with the leak to the county Department of Public Health last fall, compared to about 200 per month while the leak was active.

Dr. Jeffrey Nordella, a Northridge urgent-care and family doctor who treated people affected by the leak, said that symptoms seem to occur “in spikes”; (if a result of Aliso) this could be either from patients re-experiencing the symptoms of the initial exposure, or more gas leaking from the site. In the latter case, SCAQMD reports that air quality in the area has repeatedly tested safe.

“There’s an acute phase and a latent phase to any poisoning,” Nordella said in a phone interview.

Nordella stated that, in a process called bioaccumulation, substances can accumulate in fatty tissue to be periodically re-released into the bloodstream.

Aliso’s rotten-egg smell, and subsequent nausea and nosebleeds, was caused by methyl mercaptan, a powerful odorant added to natural gas so that a leak of this nature can be detected (as methane, the main component, is odorless and colorless); it does not have more serious effects. What does, though, is the carcinogen benzene, which was also detected at the site.

The most insidious effect of the leak, however, may be the long-term environmental damage. Methane is nontoxic, but this greenhouse gas has 86 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide over 20 years. Every day, 1,200 tons of methane was released in the early stages of the leak, leading to a monthly greenhouse gas emission equivalent to 200,000 cars in a year, according to the L.A. Daily News.

The facility was allowed to reopen at a third of capacity, as reported by the L.A. Times on Jan. 17, but SoCalGas is not allowed to inject more gas into the already severely depleted site, pending the results of hearings about Aliso’s status. Protesters flocked these hearings in Woodland Hills from Feb. 1-2, calling for Aliso to be permanently and completely shut down. California state senator Henry Stern (D-Calabasas) has recently introduced Senate Bill 57, which would prevent new injections until an analysis of the cause of the leak is completed.

In response to calls to close the site permanently, SoCalGas maintains that Aliso (the largest of the company’s four such facilities) is essential to store the natural gas that Southern California relies on for power. However, the summer before Aliso’s partial reopening, the state predicted 14 days of blackouts, which never transpired. Groups like Save Porter Ranch and Consumer Watchdog point to this as evidence that the area could get on without Aliso’s natural gas.

The L.A. Times reports that, while home sales dropped 44 percent in the first three months of the leak, the median home sale price actually increased 5.7 percent. It’s business as usual for plans to build an upscale shopping center, the Porter Ranch Village, only about a mile’s drive from Sierra Canyon’s upper campus; according to a May 2016 issue of the Porter Ranch Proud newsletter with an update on Aliso on the same page as an article announcing the groundbreaking for the Village in 2017 and an opening in 2018, apparently not considering the possible connection. It does not appear that there are worries about the gas leak’s lingering effects (not to mention the possibility of another leak) keeping customers away from the Village. For some Sierra Canyon students, the Village doesn’t seem to present concerns either, seen as just a trendy shopping opportunity in a more convenient location for those living in Chatsworth.

“I’m looking forward to [the Village] immensely…There’s a whole gated community here [in the Chatsworth area], and there’s schools, and there’s a lot of housing here; and their nearest mall right now is [in] Northridge,” junior Noah Levin said.

Not everyone is as nonchalant, though. For junior Presley Faulk, who lived in a hotel for several months while the gas leak was active (her family has since returned to Porter Ranch), the crisis didn’t end when the leak was plugged.

“My sister used to go [to school] right near the hill; I still hear that people are getting nosebleeds [there]…I don’t think it’s very smart to build a plaza,” Faulk said.