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Inside the Effort to Plug Southern California’s Scary Gas Leak

The United States’ worst environmental disaster since the 2010 BP oil spill.

The gas leak in December 2015. Image via Wikimedia Commons user EARTHWORKS

A methane gas leak in a town 25 miles from Los Angeles has forced thousands of families to leave their homes and the closure of two schools amid reports of sickness throughout the area. And officials say the leak—which has leaked nearly 80,000 metric tons of the climate pollutant as of Tuesday—could take two more months to plug.

The leak stems from a natural gas well beneath the 30,000-person community of Porter Ranch. A December analysis by The Washington Post estimated that the 20-year impact of the greenhouse gases released by the leak are equal to the emissions of 7 million automobiles, or six coal-fired power plants.

“It is one of the biggest leaks we’ve ever seen reported,” Tim O’Connor, California climate director for the Environmental Defense Fund, told the Post. “It is coming out with force, in incredible volumes. And it is absolutely uncontained.”

Southern California Gas (SoCalGas), which is responsible for the natural gas well, tried to fix the damaged well wall with a mixture of brine and mud late last year. But the upward pressure of the gas (about 2,700 pounds per square inch) quashed that effort.

The new plan, according to the Associated Press, involves drilling two relief wells. These wells will intersect where the original well is damaged, and will allow workers to plug it below the leak—about a mile down.

Here’s an image of the operation:

Image via SoCalGas

The company began drilling the first relief well December 4, and it won’t be completed for weeks. The second relief well will get underway on January 20, “a backup,” AP says, “in case the first one misses the existing 7-inch pipe or is unable to deliver enough brine and mud to stop the leak.”

The operation “is a little like trying to hit a quarter-inch target from the distance of a football field,” Jason Marshall, chief deputy director of the California Department of Conservation, told AP.

SoCalGas says the whole process will take until late February or, possibly, late March.

Meanwhile, many residents of Porter Ranch are living in temporary housing, some of it provided by SoCalGas.

“This is the biggest community and environmental disaster I’ve ever seen, bar none,” Mitchell Englander, who represents Porter Ranch on the Los Angeles City Council, told Bloomberg. “Life there is not on hold—it’s on the edge and it’s on the brink of pandemonium. People are living with fear, uncertainty and doubt.”

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