A major natural gas storage well in Southern California is still leaking, though less so than back in late October, when the giant gas leak was first reported. More than 5,000 families and two schools have been relocated since then, and the local utility that operates the facility is now facing several legal actions.
The utility, Southern California Gas Co., now says the leak should be sealed by the end of the month, if not earlier, and also says the gases released will cause no long-term health effects. But some people who live near the leak worry that not enough research has been done to make that claim.
Christine Katz, for example, who has a home in Porter Ranch, a few miles downwind from the leak, remembers first smelling the gas in early October.
"It would start off early in the morning, and then it would kind of dissipate," she says. "Then it continued on each day." She asked her husband if he might have accidentally left their barbecue on. He hadn't.
A couple weeks later, Katz's two-year-old daughter, Ava, got a cough and started wheezing. A doctor put her on an inhaler. That was still before the neighborhood was notified of the gas leak.
In November, Ava got sick again, this time for two weeks. She was extremely lethargic, Katz says — falling asleep in her high chair, or while playing on the grass. Katz's four other kids began having headaches and nosebleeds. Then, one day, Ava developed a high fever, and then had a seizure.
"She was rushed to the hospital, and they couldn't figure out what was wrong with her," Katz says. "So they transported her to Children's Hospital [Los Angeles] and she was in the ICU for four days."
Doctors tested Ava, but couldn't find anything wrong with her, beyond dehydration and respiratory problems, which they remedied.
California state health officials investigating the leak reported last week that "overall, the available air sample data does not indicate that an acute health hazard exists from any of the volatile organic chemicals measured," though it notes that the headaches, nausea and respiratory irritation that many residents have reported could be a response to the odorant the company adds to its natural gas supply.
Christine Katz says Ava's doctors found no evidence the gas leak was to blame for the little girl's fever or seizure. Some of her symptoms — like lethargy, wheezing, and rashes — have been commonly reported by other residents in Porter Ranch. Others, like the fever and seizure, haven't.
Still, Katz believes the gas leak was responsible for her daughter's illness.
So the family moved to a home about 30 miles away. SoCalGas, which was ordered by local officials to relocate residents who lived near the leak, has paid for three-months rent for the Katz's new house.
Christine Katz says Ava is now fine.
"She's better and she's happy, and I'll do anything I can to keep her that way," Katz says.
Katz and her husband are now suing SoCalGas for damages, medical expenses and loss of value to their property. And she says she doesn't want to go back to their old house.
"Even though you can't see the gas, it's there," Katz says. "And that's the saddest part — people don't understand it. Because it's not a mudslide, it's not an earthquake. You just don't see the devastation, but it's there."
SoCalGas has set up a help center for local residents at a retail center in Porter Ranch. People who live within five miles of the leak can ask for relocation assistance, free air filters and air cleaning supplies.
Mike Mizrahi, a spokesman for SoCalGas, says the company brought him out of retirement to help handle public relations after the leak. Right now, he says, the utility's two priorities are to stop the leak and to serve the community.
"One of the key questions that folks continue to appropriately ask — it's one that I would ask — is, 'Is there anything I should be concerned about that might be long-term?" Mizrahi says. "And the answer is, 'No, according to public health, according to the air sampling they're doing.' "
The county health department of Los Angeles concurs that "exposures to these chemicals are generally not expected to lead to permanent or long-term health problems."
But Michael Jerrett, who heads the department of environmental health sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, says such an assessment is "probably overly optimistic."
Jerrett studies the effects of air quality and pollution on health. He agrees that methane — the main component of the natural gas that was leaked — is probably not harmful to people. And many of the symptoms reported, such as nausea, headaches or dizziness, can likely be traced to relatively innocuous, short-term effects of mercaptan — the smelly stuff that's added to methane so you can tell there's been a leak.
But some lesser components of natural gas have been shown to have health effects — at least at higher levels, Jerrett says. Benzene, for example, is carcinogenic, and n-hexane is a neurotoxin, he says, while hydrogen sulfide can irritate the lungs and skin.
There's been a good amount of research about the harmful effects of exposure to high amounts of benzene over a short period, like a matter of hours, Jerrett says. And there's some evidence of its effects over very long periods, such as a lifetime of occupational exposure, say. But there's not much data on exposures over a few months at levels that are higher than normal, but below what the government has deemed an acceptable standard. That's the sort of exposure, he says, that we're likely talking about with the leak at Porter Ranch.
"We're dealing with an area where, unfortunately, there's a gap in the science," Jerrett says. He says that if he were a resident of the area, he too would have relocated his family until the leak was fixed.
"And then," he tells NPR, "I would hope that there was going to be a very rigorous regulatory process that was going to be put in place to prevent this from ever happening again."
In late January, a board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Los Angeles ordered SoCalGas to — among other things — complete a study on the potential health effects of the leak.
In the meantime, many families from the area decided not to relocate — including Dhruv Sareen, who does stem cell research at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and lives just over a mile from the gas leak.
Sareen says he thinks the Porter Ranch gas leak has turned into a circus of lawyers and misinformation.
"As soon as that started happening — my degree being in chemical engineering and biochemistry — I started studying the numbers and the data," Sareen says. And that data didn't alarm him.
One of his kids got sick soon after the gas leak, too, he says, but it was just the flu. He's not worried about the quality of the air.
"My parents live in New Delhi," Sareen says. "The particulate matter and the benzene levels and the sulphur compounds they are exposed to [are] probably 10 to 20 times more than here. I mean, we are breathing amazingly clean air compared to New Delhi."
There are risks to living anywhere, Sareen says.
"Should I leave my house, disrupt my life?" he asks. "Close the schools — close the preschools? And live somewhere else?" He doesn't think so.
SoCalGas says it hopes to have the leak fully stopped within the month, and will pay an additional week's rent after that for the families who did decide to relocate. After that, the utility says, residents should start moving back to the area.
But some people say they never will.
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Back in October, Christine Katz, who lives here in the LA area, started smelling gas.
CHRISTINE KATZ: It would start off early in the morning, and then it would kind of dissipate. And then it continued on each day, so I asked my husband if we accidentally left the barbeque on.
MCEVERS: They didn't leave the barbecue on, and the smell didn't stop. Then, their 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Ava, got a cough and started wheezing. A few days after that, the local utility, Southern California Gas Company, announced that a major natural gas storage facility about three miles from the Katz's house had sprung a leak. Now, months later, it's still leaking. This leak has been called a major environmental disaster, and people are wondering what it means for their health. Public health officials say they don't expect any serious or longterm illnesses because of the gas leaks. But some people who live near the leak can't help but worry. A few weeks after the company announced the leak, Christine Katz's daughter, Ava, got sick again, and she didn't get better.
KATZ: She had a fever. She was lethargic. Anywhere - she would fall asleep in her high chair. She would fall asleep on the floor. I would go and feed my fish that I had in the back yard, and she'd be - I'd turn around and she'd be on the grass.
MCEVERS: And then things got worse. Christine Katz's four other kids got headaches and nosebleeds, and Ava got sicker.
KATZ: She had a seizure, and she was rushed to the hospital. And they couldn't figure out what was wrong with her, so they transported her to Children's Hospital, and she was in ICU for four days.
MCEVERS: Doctors treated Ava for dehydration and respiratory problems, but Katz says the doctors did not give Ava a diagnosis. It is unclear if Ava Katz's health problems had anything to do with the gas leak. Some of her symptoms, like breathing problems, have been reported by a lot of residents. But the fever and the seizure have not, and those are pretty common for young kids. Christine Katz believes there is a link to the gas leak, so the family relocated at the expense of SoCal Gas. The company has been ordered to relocate families by government officials. So far, more than 5,000 households have been relocated. SoCal Gas has paid for three months' rent for the Katzs' new house far from the gas leak. And since they left, Christine Katz says Ava isn't sick anymore.
KATZ: She's better, and she's happy. And I'll do anything I can to keep her that way.
MCEVERS: Now the Katz's are suing SoCal Gas for damages, medical expenses and loss of property value. The company faces several similar lawsuits from people who say they and their families are getting sick from the leak. The company says the leak will be capped by the end of this month. And it says there will be no long-term he effects from the leak. But Christine Katz and others say they don't believe that. She says she doubts she will ever go back to her house downwind from the leak in the LA suburb of Porter Ranch.
KATZ: Even though you can't see the gas, it's there. And that's the saddest part, is people don't understand it because it's not a mudslide. It's not an earthquake. You just don't see the devastation, but it's there.
MCEVERS: So we head out to Porter Ranch.
BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Yeah, dude, I think I can smell it.
MCEVERS: Oh, maybe.
SULLIVAN: Yeah, it smells like natural gas.
Producer Becky Sullivan and I hike as close as we can get to the SoCal Gas storage facility. The natural gas is kept underneath some hills.
So we're here in Porter Ranch. We're looking out over some hills with just - they're mostly brown and dry. They've got some brush on them on our left side. On our right is, you know, where people live - houses, lots of gated communities with names like Highlands, Renaissance, Porter Ranch Estates. But right now, it's really, really empty.
We drive a few miles to the main shopping area, where SoCal Gas has set up a help center for people who live within five miles of the leak. People can ask for relocation assistance like the Katzs got or free air filters and air cleaning supplies. The center is so full there's a line outside. That's where Maurice Wilson is waiting.
What are you - what are you doing here? Are you here to...
MAURICE WILSON: I'm here to see if I can get relocated.
MCEVERS: So how long have you been waiting?
WILSON: I just got here, like, 40 minutes go.
MCEVERS: We meet up with Mike Mizrahi. He's a spokesperson for SoCal Gas. He says the two priorities are to stop the leak - that's supposed to happen by the end of this month - and to serve the community.
MIKE MIZRAHI: One of one of the key questions that folks continue to appropriately ask - it's one that I would ask - is, is there anything I should be concerned about that might be long-term? And the answer is no, according to public health, according to the air sampling that they're doing. You know, the things that would cause health problems, there's no greater trace levels here in Porter Ranch than there might be anywhere else in Los Angeles.
MCEVERS: But some scientists told us it's too soon to say whether or not there will be long-term health effects from this leak. Mike Jerrett is a public health professor at UCLA. We meet up with him in Porter Ranch not far from the leak. People have agreed to let him and two grad students place monitors at their houses. He's about to take a reading.
MIKE JERRETT: So this is our monitoring setup...
MCEVERS: We ask Mike Jerrett what he thinks about the SoCal Gas claim that there are no known long-term health effects from this gas leak.
JERRETT: Well, I think that is probably an overly optimistic interpretation.
MCEVERS: He says that's because there's still a lot we don't know. The main component of natural gas is methane. When it leaks, it does a lot of harm to the environment, but not to people. It's the other compounds, Jerrett says, that are leaking out with the methane that can make people sick. First, there's mercaptan, that smelly stuff that's added to methane so you can tell when there's a leak. It can give people nausea and headaches. But officials have also detected benzene, which causes cancer, and other chemicals.
JERRETT: Some are neurotoxins, like n-hexane, and some are respiratory irritants, like hydrogen sulfide.
MCEVERS: The government says the levels of benzene in the air are not a major concern. Jerrett says there's not enough research about benzene at these levels to know that for sure.
JERRETT: We're dealing with an area where, unfortunately, there's a gap in the science.
MCEVERS: If you lived here, would you be staying here right now, you and your family? Would you leave?
JERRETT: I certainly would relocate until the event was over. And then I would hope that there was going to be a very rigorous regulatory process that was going to be put in place to prevent this from happening again.
MCEVERS: There are many families who've decided not to relocate. Dhruv Sareen lives with his wife and two kids in a gated community in Porter Ranch. We get in touch with Dhruv after he posts pictures online of hiking as close as he can get to the gas leak. He is clearly not worried. Dhruv Sareen is a research scientist at a local hospital. And he says the Porter Ranch gas leak has turned into a circus of lawyers and misinformation.
DHRUV SAREEN: And as soon as that started happening, my degree being in chemical engineering and biochemistry, I started studying the numbers and the data.
MCEVERS: And that data didn't alarm him. One of his kids got sick after the gas leak, but he says it was just the flu. So he and his family have decided to stay. He says he's not worried about the quality of the air.
SAREEN: I mean, my parents live in New Delhi, and the particulate matter and the benzene levels and the sulfur compounds they're exposed to is probably, like, 10 to 20 times more than here. I mean, we're breathing amazingly clean air compared to New Delhi.
MCEVERS: There are risks to living anywhere, Dhruv Sareen says.
SAREEN: Should I leave my house, disrupt my life, close the schools, close preschools and live somewhere else? I don't know.
MCEVERS: Once the gas leak is fully capped - SoCal Gas says that'll happen by the end of the month - the company will pay another week's rent for families who did decide to relocate. After that, the company says people should start coming back. Some people say they never will. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.