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The 3-Month-Old LA Gas Leak Is Finally Under Control — At Least for Now

Southern California Gas, which operates the natural gas storage facility on the outskirts of Los Angeles, announced that a relief well had brought the leak under control.
February 12, 2016, 7:05pm
Photo by Richard Vogel/AP

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The Aliso Canyon well on the outskirts of Los Angeles that has been leaking natural gas for over 100 days has finally been put under control, the well operator announced.

Thousands of people have been evacuated, local and state lawsuits filed, and tens of thousands of tons of greenhouse gases have spewed into the atmosphere due to the rupture, which is among the worst environmental accidents in the past year.

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A relief well intercepted the leak yesterday and Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) began pumping heavy fluids into it in order to control the flow of gas, according to a company statement. To plug the well permanently, the company must fill it with cement.

"We have temporarily controlled the natural gas flow from the leaking well and begun the process of sealing the well and permanently stopping the leak," Jimmie Cho, a senior vice president at SoCalGas, said.

The well released at least 95,000 metric tons of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, according to an estimate by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and caused headaches, stomach problems, nausea, and other health ailments for local residents. Thousands of people were forced to relocate, and the company has been hit by lawsuits — including from the state's attorney general Kamala Harris, as well as Los Angeles County criminal charges.

Additionally, the family of a deceased local resident, Zelda Rothman, filed a wrongful death suit against the company, saying that the leak worsened the health of the 79-year-old woman.

Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander represents communities adjacent to the leak and said that approximately 15,000 people had to leave the area.

"With so many lives affected over the past four months, the news of finally stopping the leak will allow this community to begin breathing a healthy sigh of relief," Englander said. "The next several phases are critical to ensuring the capped well is certified, the entire facility is safe, and this community can begin to recover."

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Englander has described the leak as an "invisible tsunami."

Related: Company Responsible for Huge Los Angeles Methane Leak Hit With Criminal Charges

The effect of all the methane released by the well equals the impact of about 900 million gallons of gasoline burned, the EDF has estimated. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that is 25 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide on a 100-year time scale.

The EDF said that the company had to be held responsible for its actions, and demanded better regulation and oversight of the oil and gas industry, which they said is responsible for widespread methane leaks.

"Now comes the critical process of making sure this doesn't happen again and holding the company accountable," Tim O'Connor, EDF's director of California oil and gas, said. "SoCalGas can't respond with its checkbook alone. It has to take care of the neighbors it has harmed and take enough methane out of the air to make up for the damage this leak has caused."

After SoCalGas pumps concrete into the well, it will have to perform a series of tests — including measuring temperature, pressure, and even noises in the well — to make sure the leak has stopped, according to the state's Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources.

Relocated residents will then have eight days to move back to their neighborhoods, according to the company, which footed the bill for their temporary housing.

Related: Obama Tells Oil and Gas Companies to Get a Grip on Methane Emissions

Follow Rob Verger on Twitter: @robverger