It’s been two months since a blown-out natural gas well was capped and officials spoke of thousands of uprooted families returning to their normal lives.
But nearly half of the 8,000 families who left home at some point have yet to return, many still worried about the possibility of another leak and potential health hazards from chemicals in the gas that spewed uncontrollably for almost four months.
Andrew Krowne’s family is among those whose lives remain in limbo.
Krowne, his wife, toddler and four other young children, are going into a fourth month at a hotel – paid for by Southern California Gas Co. – where they have celebrated four birthdays, including his wife’s 40th and just last week, his daughter’s fourth.
“Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, birthdays, Easter, everything’s been in the hotel,” Krowne said. “It was basically, stay away from (home) like it was the plague.”
The Krownes and others packed up to escape symptoms ranging from nausea to nosebleeds, rashes to respiratory problems – or to avoid breathing air they feared would cause future health problems as the SoCalGas storage facility gushed 100,000 tons of climate-changing methane.
Concerns in Porter Ranch and surrounding communities were reinforced last weekend by a small gas leak and oil spill at another company operating in the Aliso Canyon, one of the nation’s largest natural gas storage fields and the major supplier for Southern California.
SoCalGas points out that public health agencies have found air in the community safe, but it has been forced by courts to extend paying for temporary housing while the county health department tests homes for chemicals. The department, which initially gave the all-clear signal, has fielded 300 complaints from residents since the leak was capped Feb. 18, and a survey found more than 60 percent still reporting symptoms.
Facing a much longer haul than it expected when it offered to pay for an additional week of lodging after the leak was sealed, the company now plans to move people from hotels to what it says are high-quality, longer-term apartments with kitchens that will prevent them from having to shuffle between hotels.
SoCalGas spokesman Chris Gilbride said the county has created uncertainty for residents by continuing to push for housing extensions while performing tests for some 200 compounds, many of which are found indoors and in common household products.
“The Department of Public Health’s methodology appears designed to test everything that may be found in indoor air regardless of any relationship with the gas leak and we expect they will fail to produce any results that help residents understand whether the gas leak impacted their indoor air,” Gilbride said.
Displaced residents, angry about the leak’s effect on their lives and frustrated with lagging reimbursements for meals and mileage, are not happy about being uprooted again.
“I don’t want to move to downtown LA in some crappy accommodation,” said Janet Terterian, who has been staying with her dogs in a Four Seasons hotel. “I want to go home, but then when I was going home, I was getting sick.”
Terterian is so fed up, she’s selling her house and plans to leave the area. She’s having trouble finding a buyer for the spacious four-bedroom home she bought three years ago for $800,000 and listed in March for $1.1 million.
Sales of Porter Ranch homes dropped 44 percent in the three months after the foul smell of gas began wafting over the area, compared with the three months before. The median price, which was just over $700,000 in March, remained stable during the period, according to RealtyTrac.
The gas leak could have an impact on future development. The county has put a moratorium on all new residential development near the gas facility, holding up the luxury 188-home Hidden Creeks Estates, said Tony Bell, a spokesman for county Supervisor Michael Antonovich.
The gas company had estimated costs related to the leak at $250 million to $300 million, but that was before the housing period was extended several times and doesn’t include dozens of lawsuits or regulatory action. It said insurance should cover most of it.
As the state investigates the cause of the blowout, the 114 other wells in the field are undergoing rigorous tests before the company can resume injecting gas into wells a mile-and-a-half underground. The company said it expects to resume operations by the end of the summer.
The facility typically supplies gas-fired power plants during summer demand spikes and energy officials have warned that blackouts are possible without the facility’s gas supplies. A consumer group and environmentalists have criticized such claims as a scare tactic to justify keeping the facility in operation.
Krowne and others who live nearby are fighting to get the facility shut down. He’s also fighting to stay in the Courtyard Marriott, where his family is packed into adjoining rooms, rather than move to an apartment.
“They’re ever so gently putting their hand on your back and forcing you to do this,” Krowne said. “The whole point of this process is to make it so unbelievably hard on the resident so you give up and go home.”
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