Photo by © Hannah Benet 

Protestors block the entrance of the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility on Oct. 23, continuing their demands for its permanent closure.

LOS ANGELES — Dozens of protesters gathered at the entrance to the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility near Porter Ranch on Monday, Oct. 23, calling for a permanent closure of the facility that was the site of the largest methane leak in U.S. history.

Chanting slogans such as “Shut it all down” and waving signs shaped like tombstones, dozens of residents and members of the Save Porter Ranch community group gathered in front of the facility, arguing that people are still experiencing health problems stemming from the 2015-16 leak and from the facility’s continued operation.

Southern California Gas Co. and other state agencies “swore up and down, they certified just a couple weeks ago … that that facility is safe,” said Matt Pakucko of Save Porter Ranch. “Liars. Liars or incompetent? Which one is it?”

The rally was held in conjunction with the second anniversary of the massive Aliso Canyon gas leak, which was discovered in October 2015 and continued emanating methane until a Feb. 11, 2016, announcement that the leak was capped. The leak poured an estimated 109,000 tons of methane into the air.

At its peak, the escaping gas forced an estimated 15,000 Porter Ranch area residents to temporarily relocate.

At a Oct. 14 town hall meeting with residents, Porter Ranch primary care physician Dr. Jeffrey Nordella released the findings of his health probe of 106 patients tested for toxins and metals. The October 2015 gas blowout at the Aliso Canyon Storage Facility exposed families to 100 thousand tons of methane over four months—an unprecedented exposure in terms the quantity, length of time and combination of toxins.

Nordella concluded that his patients have, and continue two show, residual signs of illness from this exposure.

Toxicology reports of samples he submitted found a statistically significant difference from the general population in the levels of carcinogens. Urine samples showed elevated levels of styrene and ethylbenzene (BTEX) and uranium and lithium were present in hair samples. Hair samples were statistically significant when compared to averages in the rest of California as well as the United States and support evidence of patients’ long-term exposure.

“I think the people in the studies (both clinical and toxicology) correlated with the my findings,” Nordella said on Wednesday, Oct. 25. “People are sick and they did have toxins.”

“Another alarming thing is how the county department of public health was not forthcoming with the people. It’s supposed to be an agency protecting the people. But their findings either not disclose or truthfully disclose [information].

The physician said a separate health study was done, and that he reviewed the 4,000-plus page document “to see if they had anyone finding what I was finding. When I delved into their study, there were things that were ‘positive’ that were not disclosed, and things they told the public they didn’t find but did not bother to test for.”

For example, Norvella said, testers from UCLA found benzene, a known carcinogen, in two of seven homes and notified the public health. But, he said, when the department tested 103 homes, it decided not to do any wipe testing for benzene.

Furthermore, Norvell said, the  public health department tested canisters for air, and found in 6 of 103 homes positive results for benzene above the EPA’s maximum amount in six of the 103 homes, but did not reveal that to the public. 

Nordella concluded that there is an abundance of information to support the need for a comprehensive, independent, long-term health study of toxic exposure from the Aliso Canyon blowout.

“It is scientifically irresponsible to ignore the facts and allow the continued operation of the Aliso Canyon Gas Storage Field,” he said.

Limited operations resumed at the natural gas facility in late July with the blessing of state regulators. Efforts by Los Angeles County officials to block the resumed operations failed in court.

Protest organizers said they want Gov. Jerry Brown to order the immediate shutdown of the facility. The governor’s office has said that Brown has directed state agencies to prepare for the ultimate closure of the facility, although such a move likely would not occur for about a decade.

“People are making sacrifices. This is a work day. It’s a school day,” resident Craig Galanti said, motioning toward the crowd that gathered at the facility. “People are here. It’s time for others to step up, because this could happen to you.”

Protesters remained outside Aliso Canyon for several hours, with some sitting on the roadway into the facility. Law enforcement officials eventually declared the gathering an unlawful assembly, and about a dozen people were handcuffed and led away.

Southern Califo rnia Gas Co. officials have repeatedly insisted that Aliso Canyon is safe to operate, contending that the utility has gone above and beyond state safety requirements. SoCalGas officials also contend the plant “has undergone more safety and regulatory scrutiny” than any other similar facility in the country. The utility insists the facility is now subject to the “most rigorous monitoring, inspection and safety requirements in the nation,” including continued testing of wells, pressure monitoring of all wells, four-times-daily visual well inspections and operation of a fence-line methane monitoring system.