Courtesy Photo

Residents protest in Porter Ranch.

LOS ANGELES (CNS) — Southern California Gas Co. officials told county supervisors on Tuesday, nov. 23, that it may take several months to repair a month-old gas leak that has angered residents in the Porter Ranch area and prompted questions about health risks.

The leak — discovered Oct. 23 by crews at the gas company’s Aliso Canyon storage facility near Northridge — “could take as long as one, two, three months” to fix, said Jimmy Cho, the utility’s incident commander.

To date, 660 residents have complained to the South Coast Air Quality Management District about a rotten-egg smell in the area, with some reporting symptoms such as nosebleeds, headaches and nausea, according to county health officials.

 One resident has filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against the utility and its parent company.

SoCalGas and public health officials said the leak of methane does not pose a threat because the gas dissipates outdoors and is coming from a site over a mile away from — and more than 1,200 feet higher than — homes or public areas.

However, “stopping the leak quickly and safely is our company’s top priority,” company spokeswoman Gillian Wright told the board, adding that the utility was “deeply sorry” for the impact on the Porter Ranch community.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, at Supervisor Mike Antonovich’s behest, directed SoCalGas on Nov. 19 to expedite leak abatement and to provide free, temporary relocation to any affected residents, according to Antonovich’s office.

On Tuesday, Antonovich called the idea that it could take months to fix the problem “nonsensical” and “irresponsible.”

The utility first told residents the problem would be resolved in a

matter of days and later, weeks.

“From the outside, it looks like it’s taking a very long time and I

completely understand that,” Cho said.

However, the cause of the leak from a storage well roughly 8,500 feet underground was still unidentified and hadn’t responded to traditional fixes, Cho told the board.

The company has gotten more aggressive in its approach and is now working on drilling a relief well, but safety remains a critical concern, Cho said.

Experts, including Boots & Coots Services, a Halliburton-owned well control company, have been called in to assist.

Mercaptan, a chemical that is added to the methane to warn of the presence of the gas, is the cause of residents’ symptoms, according to county health officials.

The additive is “present in extraordinarily low levels” and causes no long-term or permanent health effects, county toxicologist Dr. Cyrus Rangan told the board. But the human nose is very sensitive to the chemical, Rangan said.

Antonovich was skeptical.

“I, for one, don’t believe that … it will have no impact on health,” Antonovich said, calling for more study.

The utility is considering using another food-based additive called Odex to mask the smell of the mercaptan.

However, health officials said they were “skeptical” about such

masking agents.

Antonovich was more adamant, calling that solution “a coat of paint” covering up “a poison.”

Earlier this month, an oily mist was emitted into the air as crews worked to repair the leak, prompting warnings to residents to stay indoors.

The mist was released about 1:15 p.m. on Nov. 13 as workers pumped a heavy brine solution into a leaking pipe in a well that’s nearly 9,000 feet deep, according to company spokesman Javier Mendoza. It was stopped about 2:45 p.m. and an all-clear was given at about 4:15 p.m., he said.

The mist never left the facility grounds and the warnings were issued out of an abundance of caution, Mendoza said.

Some residents remained concerned about methane emissions.

“Stop saying methane dissipates naturally into the air,”said resident Michelle Theriault. “You know it’s a major greenhouse gas contributing to global warning.”

Based on fly-overs, the Department of Toxic Substances Control estimates that the emissions from the site amounted to 25 percent of emissions statewide during the period of the leak, according to a representative of the SCAQMD.

The air quality agency has filed a notice of public nuisance against the utility.

 Antonovich said he thought fines against SoCalGas could amount to as much as $250,000 a day, though the SCAQMD spokesman, who cautioned that he wasn’t a lawyer for the group, said he thought the daily limit might be $75,000.

 Antonovich, who is a member of the SCAQMD governing board, said he would work to direct that money to aid the Porter Ranch community.

Wright said 259 households have asked to be relocated until the leak is fixed. Sixty-seven have been placed in temporary housing to date.

Two outside agencies have been helping to speed placements and two more have just been brought on.

“Our goal is to get them placed within 24 hours of their initial

request,” Wright said.

Those who want to avail themselves of temporary accommodations, including meals and mileage reimbursement, were directed to visit the utility’s website at