Porter Ranch gas catastrophe

Posted by Christine, January 26, 2016

LA Weekly looks at What Went Wrong at Porter Ranch:

Before she retired in 2014, Anneliese Anderle was a field engineer for the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermic Resources, which regulates oil drilling. She worked out of offices in Bakersfield, Cypress and Ventura, and for a while she was responsible for monitoring the massive natural gas storage field at Aliso Canyon.

Southern California Gas owns the facility, which distributes gas to 14 power plants and 21 million customers. In her years monitoring wells at Aliso Canyon, Anderle says she got to know the gas company as “a first-class operation.”

The company tended to be conservative, and to do things rigorously and by the book. But the wells at Aliso Canyon were aging, and many were starting to wear out.

“They have a beautiful facility,” she says. “It’s gleaming. They have great roads and well-marked pipelines. Everything’s painted. But just below the surface, it’s junk.”

On Oct. 23, gas company employees noticed a leak out of the ground near a well called SS-25. It was late afternoon, so they decided to come back in the morning to fix it.

The next day, however, their efforts were unsuccessful. Gas was now billowing downhill into Porter Ranch, an upscale community on the northern edge of the San Fernando Valley. Customers were beginning to complain about the smell.

Gas leaks are not uncommon, and it took a couple weeks for this one to become news. When Anderle heard about it, in early November, she pulled up the well record on a state website. The file dates back to when the well was drilled in 1953. As she looked it over, she zeroed in on a piece of equipment 8,451 feet underground called a sub-surface safety valve.

If it were working properly, the gas company would be able to shut down the well. The fact that SoCalGas hadn’t meant, to her, that it must be broken. The records indicated that it had not been inspected since 1976.

“That’s almost 40 years,” she says. “It’s a long time to leave it in the well.”

As weeks went by and further efforts to stop the leak failed, it became clear that the company was dealing with an unprecedented catastrophe.

On Dec. 15, the Weekly interviewed Rodger Schwecke, a SoCalGas executive who is helping to coordinate the response to the leak. Asked about the safety valve, he said it wasn’t damaged. It actually wasn’t there.

“We removed that valve in 1979,” he said.

He pointed out that the valve was old at that time and leaking. It also was not easy to find a new part, so the company opted not to replace it. If SS-25 were a “critical” well — that is, one within 100 feet of a road or a park, or within 300 feet of a home — then a safety valve would be required. But it was not a critical well, so it was not required.

“Now there’s definitely going to be a push for changing the regulations,” Anderle said, when told of the missing valve. “You get rid of a safety valve because it wasn’t working? A safety valve would have shut the damn well down! They’re in a bunch of trouble.”

Read the whole story here.

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