02:34 - Source: CNN
No-fly zone over California gas leak

Story highlights

Methane started leaking from a utility's storage facility in October

SoCal Gas has temporarily relocated more than 1,600 households

Residents complain of eye and throat irritation, coughing, nausea and headaches

One family has already sued the Southern California utility over the leak

(CNN) —  

Yitz Dekel walked his dogs outside his temporary home, a residential hotel in Calabasas, California, and described the massive natural gas leak he says forced him out of his suburban Los Angeles retirement community in Porter Ranch.

“A nightmare,” the 79-year-old began. “Unsettling, very depressing, very confusing.”

Dekel and his wife Stella represent just one of the 1,675 households Southern California Gas Company says it has paid to relocate because of methane leaking at a storage facility it owns in the Santa Susana Mountains.

“We had, especially for my wife, some dizziness,” Dekel said. “Then in my case inexplicable fatigue. And my neighbors, some in ill health, had major coughing and irritation in the eyes and throat. Some had nose bleeding.”

SoCal Gas is being criticized by angry Porter Ranch residents and local politicians. One affected family has already filed a lawsuit.

The utility vows it’s working around the clock to stop the leak, first reported on October 23.

Relief wells and no-fly zones

The gas company’s prime focus, after other failed capping attempts, is drilling a relief well, a process that will take months.

“It could take up to three of four months,” said Jimmie Cho, SoCal Gas’ senior vice president of gas operations. “The reason why (it will take that long) is we are literally going underground about 8,500 feet. We’ve got to locate this well and intercept it and pour the cement necessary to kill the well.”

The Federal Aviation Administration says it invoked a no-fly zone over the project, in response to fears fumes from the gas leak could be ignited from the air.

The temporary flight restrictions extend up to 2,000 feet and a half mile around the site and were requested by state and county emergency management offices, according to the FAA.

How toxic is it?

Several government agencies are working in and around Porter Ranch to try to determine just how toxic the gas leak may be.

The Air Quality Management District, a government agency which regulates air quality in Southern California, reports finding in Porter Ranch significantly elevated levels of methane and slightly elevated levels of hydrocarbons, including propane and ethane.

What’s the biggest concern coming out of the leak? Benzene.

“We found benzene levels three to five times higher than what we see in urban Los Angeles,” said Sam Atwood, the Air Quality Management District’s media office manager. “Benzene is a concern because it is known to cause cancer in humans.”

On November 19, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Heath posted a statement that said the “exposures do not constitute an immediate danger to life, and permanent or long term health effects are not expected.”

But when the health department held a community meeting in Porter Ranch on exposure to methane and mercaptans (the foul smelling odorants added to natural gas), health officials said nausea, dizziness, vomiting, shortness of breath and headaches are among the health complaints “consistent with inhalation exposure to mercaptans.”

Disrupted lives

Kyoko Hibino and her boyfriend Matt Pakuchko live just over a mile from the storage facility where the methane is leaking and say nausea, headaches, congestion and more forced them, and their five cats, into temporary housing at a hotel in Burbank.

“From day one (SoCal Gas) didn’t correctly inform us,” Hibino said. “They said it was just part of maintenance and it would be over in a few hours.”

The couple has founded the group Save Porter Ranch and suggest a class action lawsuit may be in the works.

Brian and Christine Katz, parents of five children, have already filed suit against SoCal Gas, saying their 2-year-old daughter Ava has suffered greatly from the leak.

“She spent four nights in (intensive care) for ‘upper respiratory symptoms’ with no prior health problem,” the lawsuit states. “She experienced some form of seizure and is now listless, suffering from persistent rashes, and painful nausea.”

’Slow moving tsunami’

SoCal Gas said it’s doing everything possible to help residents and has been upfront about the leak from the beginning.

“We have not been slow to respond to this,” SoCal Gas spokesperson Javier Mendoza told CNN. “We’ve been working tirelessly.”

There’s been little rest for the displaced, many of whom are clustered around several relocation hotels in the San Fernando Valley.

Yitz Dekel compared the wave of people leaving Porter Ranch due to the gas leak to a slow moving tsunami.

“In a way, without fire and brimstone, this is a natural disaster,” Dekel said. “A technological failure and natural disaster.”

But as Dekel and others argue, the Porter Ranch leak hasn’t caused an international media sensation, yet, because there’s no lava or giant waves, but mainly colorless gas that’s upended thousands of lives.