A strong and irritating stench near the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage field earlier this month has once again pitted local residents against Southern California Gas Co., which says there were no leaks from its facility. But Porter Ranch residents are convinced that the irritating odor is related to Aliso Canyon, and the event has stirred memories of the infamous blowout there years ago, fears of a repeat, and more calls to shut it down.
Residents say the odor couldn't be related to a concurrent "red tide," 17 miles away on the coast, which has left coastal residents also dealing with a putrid smell. When nearly a hundred residents of the Porter Ranch neighborhood near Los Angeles woke the morning of May 11, they immediately detected the odor, and some began contacting each other with a question: Do you smell that? Lori Aivazian, Save Porter Ranch board member and Aliso Moms Alliance organizer, described the experience this way, in a May 20 news release from Food & Water Watch:
"I had my alarm set at 6:45 a.m. Tuesday morning, but was jolted awake at 5:45 by a racing, palpitating heart, headache and difficulty breathing. I was very frightened, thinking I was having an anxiety attack, or even worse, a heart attack. Then I saw a text from my neighbor asking if I could smell the horrible stench outside."
Aivazian said she then opened her front door "and the stench outside was as bad as it was during the Aliso Canyon gas blowout. It made me immediately dizzy and nauseous, and my tongue started tingling. It brought back memories of the fear and panic I experienced five years ago during the blowout."
Aliso Canyon has been a hotbed of controversy since the massive natural gas blowout that lasted from October 2015 to February 2016. Since then, nearby residents, along with groups like F&WW, have waged a relentless campaign to shut it down, saying they are still experiencing health effects. But withdrawals at Aliso Canyon have increased since restrictions were placed on the facility following the blowout.
As the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission pointed out in a new summer reliability assessment, more gas will likely be needed from Aliso Canyon this summer because of a low California snowpack, which pushes the grid to be reliant on natural gas and imports.
Since the events of May 11-12, F&WW surveyed 6,300 residents within a five-mile radius of Porter Ranch zip code 91326. Out of 280 responses, one-third, or 94 people, reported smelling the odor. Respondents were asked to report the odor to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, to which more than 100 complaints were filed, according to F&WW.
"In response to public complaints, a team of inspectors were dispatched to the location," SCAQMD spokesman Bradley Whitaker said in a May 22 email to California Energy Markets. "Additionally, a mobile monitor was deployed to the area. No odors were detected. Preliminary data from the mobile monitor did not show elevated levels of methane. However, the investigation remains ongoing."
F&WW California Director Alexandra Nagy in a May 21 phone interview said she has filed a public records request with SCAQMD regarding what inspectors found after they were sent to the site in response to the odor. Another possibility, according to Nagy, is a spill of mercaptan, the substance added to natural gas to give it its odor, which is highly irritating to eyes, skin and lungs and can cause headaches, dizziness, tremors and seizures, nausea and vomiting. In 2017, the odor from a spill of a single gallon of the substance traveled for miles and was also detected by Porter Ranch residents.
"The sheer volume of odor reports indicates a serious issue in the San Fernando Valley all pointing to Aliso Canyon," Nagy said in a news release. "During the worst gas blowout in U.S. history, SoCal Gas failed to report it for three days to authorities and denied the leak to residents. We have no reason to believe SoCal Gas would behave any differently now. We demand a thorough investigation into the cause of the odor by county and state agencies."
The environmental group argues that Porter Ranch is 17 miles from the coast, and the red tide smell has only traveled one mile inland in the past.
The red tide has attracted attention not only for the blue luminescent effect it produces on ocean waves, but for the stench created when the algae blooms break down. A May 12 article in the Los Angeles Times said the red tide had been heavy this year. The irritating smell had traveled a mile and half inland, according to the story, but people were still visiting the beach, swimming and surfing.
"I lived in Venice a half block from the beach for 6 years. I know what a red tide smells like," Aivazian said in the news release.
There are also questions as to why eight of SoCal Gas' Aliso Canyon methane monitors went off line at roughly 7:30 p.m. on May 11 and returned on line at roughly 9:00 a.m. the following day. There are independently run fence-line methane monitors that remained on and detected no methane, but F&WW says there is no correlation between methane and other chemicals coming off the facility, meaning it could be other chemicals that were released.
"SoCal Gas crews investigated the reports and concluded the odor was not from natural gas or any SoCal Gas facilities in the area," SoCal Gas spokesman Miguel Lopez-Najera said in a May 22 email. The wind was blowing from south to north, and the Aliso Canyon facility is located north of Porter Ranch, he said. Regarding the fence-line monitors, the relative humidity at Aliso Canyon that morning was above 80 percent, causing the monitors to automatically be placed in a weather-hold mode, he said.
The Los Angeles County Fire Department tweeted May 12 that it had responded to the complaints of an odor, but no odors or gases were detected.