Southern California air regulators delayed making a decision Saturday on whether to trap and burn leaking natural gas that has persisted for 12 weeks and driven thousands from their Los Angeles homes.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District postponed voting on an order of abatement requiring Southern California Gas Co. to stop the leak until concluding the final phase of the hearing process Wednesday, agency spokesman Sam Atwood said. Its board members must also consider a plan to bring residents more immediate relief by capturing leaking methane and disposing the gas — either by burning it or by using carbon filters — and a proposal by many residents to permanently shut down the massive gas storage field once the leak is stopped.
Atwood said air regulators would approve the plan to trap and burn the gas if it is deemed safe to do so. This past week, the state Public Utilities Commission expressed concerns that the damaged well could be vulnerable to an explosion, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it would assess the safety of burning the gas.
Residents of Porter Ranch have complained about nausea, headaches, nosebleeds and other symptoms that have persisted since the leak at the Aliso Canyon storage field, the largest facility of its kind west of the Mississippi River, was reported Oct. 23.
Gov. Jerry Brown has declared an emergency. Some environmentalists are calling the leak the worst disaster since the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 for spewing climate-changing methane.
The company is under orders to pay to relocate about 4,500 families until the problem is fixed.
To stop the leak, the company is drilling a relief well about 8,500 feet beneath the surface, but that isn't expected to finish until March. Earlier this week, the Public Utilities Commission warned the company that damage to the well system, which has been subjected to two months of high-pressure pumping to try to plug the leak, might permit air to mix with methane in a way that "could be catastrophic," the Los Angeles Times reported Saturday.
"If we can't capture that gas safely, we're not going to do that. Safety is the first priority," company spokesman Mike Mizrahi said.
The district had brokered an agreement with Southern California Gas Co. to stop the leak, trap and burn off leaking methane, reduce gas in the storage field, monitor emissions and pay for a study on health effects.
But district board members can only approve the order after public comment and a hearing last weekend had to be continued because of the large turnout. About 300 people packed the forum at a Granada Hills school, with about a quarter of those speaking out — many venting about the company and regulators.
The air district has also issued a violation order that could carry a hefty fine for the company, but it won't determine the penalty until the leak is stopped.
This story has been updated.