Dozens of people have reported having "adverse physical symptoms," according to health officials, after their community was exposed to a natural gas leak that led California Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency this week.
At least 60 residents of the Porter Ranch neighborhood of Los Angeles had reported symptoms as of Dec. 1, including headaches, nausea, abdominal discomfort, dizziness and respiratory irritation, after a natural gas leak started to affect the area in October, according to the County of Los Angeles Public Health Department.
The Southern California Gas Company is in the process of relocating thousands of people concerned about the leak, with at least 2,292 households accepting relocation, according to the company.
The governor declared a state of emergency on Wednesday, citing the "prolonged and continuing duration" of the gas leak, which was discovered on Oct. 23 in a well within the Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility, run by the Southern California Gas Company, according to a statement from Brown's office.
The declaration focused on holding SoCalGas accountable for the cost of the clean-up, in addition to strengthening oversight of all gas storage facilities in the state, not just those run by SoCalGas, by requiring daily inspection of gas storage wells and increased testing of safety valves. The proclamation did not commit resources to help Porter Ranch residents since he is calling on SoCalGas to cover the costs related to stopping this leak.
Attempts to curb the leak have so far been unsuccessful and the company has said it is digging a relief well that should stop the leak sometime in February or March.
"Our focus remains on quickly and safely stopping the leak and minimizing the impact to our neighbors in Porter Ranch. SoCalGas reaffirms our prior commitment to mitigate the environmental impact of the actual amount of natural gas released from the leak," the Southern California Gas Company said in response to the state of emergency being declared.
An official from the nearby Northridge Medical Center said the facility now sees a few people every week who appear to have symptoms that might be related to the gas leak.
Liz Clarke, clinical director of emergency services at the Dignity Health Northridge Medical Center, said it is sometimes difficult to determine what is the cause of a person's symptoms, which can appear as flu-like symptoms.
"They come in with nausea, vomiting. ... They may come in and complain of a rash or eye irritation," Clarke said of common symptoms reported. "It may not be until further down in the assessment where they say, 'Oh, by the way, I live in Porter Ranch. Do you think the methane situation may be causing by our problem?'"
The County of Los Angeles Public Health Department released a fact sheet that stated the concern for public health is not related to the released methane gas, which is not in high enough concentrations to be flammable, but from a substance called "mercaptans," which is added to gas so it is easy to detect.
In low levels, it can cause "eye, nose and throat irritation, coughing and nasal congestion, shortness of breath, nausea, stomach discomfort, dizziness, and headaches," according to the fact sheet. The substance is not associated with "long-term health effects," though the health department acknowledged the research on this subject is limited.
Clarke said the hospital has seen people recover once they're away from the affected area but that hospital officials are becoming concerned about what may happen as people return to the Porter Ranch area.
Despite SoCalGas's offering to provide temporary accommodations to residents and to assist with relocation, Clarke said many people who show signs of irritation related to the exposure have returned to the area.
"For the respiratory issues, this is the challenge because one of the things you want to do for folks is to take them away from the environment to the fresh air," Clarke said.
Students in the region have been relocated to other schools, according to officials. But Clarke noted that children who live the neighborhood could face other more acute symptoms due to their size.
"They’re developing, so they’re susceptible to so many things," Clarke said about exposure to the gas. "An adult is a little more hardy."
The Los Angeles City Attorney filed a lawsuit last month against the Southern California Gas Company over the leak.
The company has said in response to the lawsuit that it has taken steps to temporarily relocate families and that it is not possible to accurately measure the amount of natural gas that is escaping due to the leak. It has been in daily contact with state and local officials from the beginning, SoCalGas representatives said, and the company said it has provided filtration devices for residents in the area.
"We regret that the smell of the odorant in natural gas is unpleasant and that some people are sensitive to the odor, and we sincerely apologize for the annoyance and concern this odor is causing the neighboring communities," the company said in an earlier statement. "However, the leak does not pose an imminent threat to public safety. The well is located in an isolated, mountain area more than a mile away from and more than 1,200 feet higher than the closest home or public area."