Crews from SoCalGas and outside experts work on a relief well at the Aliso Canyon facility above the Porter Ranch area of Los Angeles, Wednesday, Dec. 9. 2015. Once the relief well is connected to the leaking well, SoCalGas will pump fluids and cement into the bottom of the leaking well to stop the flow of gas and permanently seal the well. (Dean Musgrove/Los Angeles Daily News via AP, Pool)

Gov. Jerry Brown issued a proclamation Wednesday, Jan. 6, declaring a “state of emergency” at the Aliso Canyon gas leak that could provide new avenues of relief for beleaguered Porter Ranch residents.

The leak, coming from a well owned by the Southern California Gas Company, has been sending large amounts of methane gas and other chemical fumes into the air near Porter Ranch neighborhoods since Oct. 23.

Residents have complained of nausea, nosebleeds, dizziness and headaches related to the leak. More than 2,000 residents have voluntarily left, and two schools were closed.

“Given the prolonged and continuing duration of the Aliso Canyon gas leak and at the request of residents and local officials, Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. today issued a proclamation that declares the situation an emergency and details the administration’s ongoing efforts to help stop the leak,” the proclamation said. The order also directs further action “to protect public health and safety, ensure accountability and strengthen oversight of gas storage facilities.”

The proclamation also stated Wednesday’s action “builds on months of regulatory and oversight actions from seven state agencies mobilized to protect public health, oversee Southern California Gas Company’s actions to stop the leak, track methane emissions, ensure worker safety, safeguard energy reliability and address any other problems stemming from the leak.”

Reaction was swift.

“It’s about time,” said Atty. R. Rex Parris, whose Lancaster-based firm is one of several that have filed lawsuits on behalf of residents.

“I’m glad he has recognized the enormity of the problem. But I think a lot of it also has to do with the Legislature is stepping in. I think he is trying to get in front (of their action). He can’t be the only one saying it’s not that big of a problem.”

Parris said the declaration means the state can use executive powers to keep landlords from tripling rents for relocated residents, provide assistance for area business that have lost their customer base, and allow banks to forego mortgage payments from displaced homeowners until the leak is stopped and the crisis ends.

“Before today, the only bank willing to do this was Wells Fargo,” Parris said.

“This is a game changer, and the people at Porter Ranch will be getting the help they deserve.”

Alexandra Nagy, an organizer for Food and Water Watch, also praised Brown’s action.

“We are relived that Governor Brown finally stepped in to declare a State of Emergency for the Porter Ranch gas blowout,” Nagy said, in a statement.

“This is a hard fought win for the residents of Porter Ranch and beyond affected by this noxious blowout. Governor Brown can’t deny that our continued reliance on fossil fuels and fracked natural gas is too great a risk. Now, Governor Brown needs to shut the Aliso Canyon Storage Facility for good.”

As the investigations into the leaking gas well in Aliso Canyon continue, the latest admission by the Southern California Gas Company paints a picture of a long-running problem rather than an accident.

“Newly uncovered information shows that Southern California Gas Company admitted five years ago it operated numerous leaking wells in Aliso Canyon, received a ratepayer increase to upgrade these wells — and yet deliberately failed to replace safety valves on its gas injection wells,” said Patricia Oliver with the Parris firm.

“The result of SoCalGas’s indifference to public safety is the massive gas well failure that forced thousands of Porter Ranch residents from their homes.”

Attorney Robert Kennedy Jr. said the admission came during a Dec. 29 meeting with SoCalGas officials and the Porter Ranch Community Advisory Committee. “SoCalGas admitted that the new and replacement wells that they drill do not have the safety valves,” Kennedy said. “This shocking admission came nearly five years after SoCalGas requested regulatory permission to increase rates to replace the many leaking valves at the Aliso Canyon storage field. There are over 90 gas injection wells at Aliso Canyon, one of the largest storage facilities in the nation.”

Parris said SoCalGas had reported to the state Division of Oil and Gas and Geological Resources (DOGGR) they had replaced the safety features, which indicated the valves. “But they lawyered it up,” to say safety features.

“What they did was remove the safety valve and the 2-inch pipe, which was the extraction pipe, to pull oil out of the hole. Now they are left with just the casing. But it’s a 7-inch casing instead of a 2-inch pipe, which lets them pump out more gas. The problem is, they have now essentially removed any ability to shut the well down if the casing ruptures,” Parris said.

“The blowout valve, you can  turn it off. If that had been there, none of this would have happened. And all casings do denigrate and lose structural integrity, so you put in plans for things to break.”

Parris added that well is built on a “geologically active” area. “You will have earth movement. You can’t expect the casing to hold up 60-70 years. And they know that.”

It gets worse, Parris said.

“In 2010 they reported to the Public Utilities Commission of the need of a rate increase because lots of the wells are leaking. They wanted to repair them at a rate of five percent a year. But we see no evidence of work being done.

“We’ve been asking for records. The state Attorney General’s office and DOGGR is doing everything to frustrate record request. We’re suing DOGGR along with the Gas Company because they are complicit. They knew this and did nothing.”

The recent admission by SoCalGas that it removed the safety valve prompted an amended class action lawsuit already filed in connection with the massive gas well blowout.

“This aging, deteriorating and dangerous facility needs to be shut down immediately,” stated Matt Pakucko, president of the community group Save Porter Ranch.

“There is no excuse for SoCalGas to let numerous leaking wells continue to remain in place for years at Aliso Canyon. Had SoCalGas simply maintained the safety valves in Aliso Canyon, we would not be faced with the disastrous well failure in Porter Ranch,” concluded Oliver.

SoCalGas officials announced an expansion of a resource center it established for people affected by a continuing natural gas leak in the Porter Ranch area.

The resource center is located at Porter Ranch Town Center, 19731 Rinaldi St. The center was expanded into an adjacent storefront, and SoCalGas officials said it also added staffing to handle claims, relocation requests and home air-purification requests.

The center is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends.

The Gas Co. also announced a toll-free relocation call center at (877) 238-9555 to help expedite the processing of residents who want to be temporarily moved out of the area. The hotline will operate around the clock.

The relocation program was also slightly amended, eliminating the need for relocated residents to submit receipts for reimbursement of food-related

expenses. The daily meal reimbursement amount was also increased to $45 per person.

Besides the 2,000-plus people that have already temporarily relocated out of the Porter Ranch area, more than double that amount have applied to move in response to the leak.

Gas Co. officials have said it could take until late March to fix the leak. Workers are drilling a relief well that will allow them to pump heavy fluids and mud into the ground to stop the leak.

To read the complaint, click here.

City News Service and various news outlets contributed to this report.