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Porter Ranch: Gas leak has been temporarily stopped, company says

SoCalGas said Thursday it had temporarily stopped a months-long natural gas leak in Aliso Canyon that had forced residents of Porter Ranch and other communities to leave their homes amid complaints of headaches and other health problems.

Work crews digging a relief well intercepted the leaking well on Thursday, allowing them to pump heavy fluids inside, the company said in a statement.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said that he was "relieved" to hear the news.

"This is a critical step for the health and safety of the residents of Porter Ranch and Los Angeles," Garcetti said in a statement. "We still have a lot of work to do to ensure the safety and vibrancy of this incredible neighborhood, but this is welcome and long-overdue good news."

"The news of finally stopping the leak will allow this community to begin breathing a healthy sigh of relief," City Councilman Mitchell Englander said in a statement.

The company said it would attempt to permanently plug the well with cement within the next few days.

The state's oil and gas regulator will then need a few more days to confirm that the well has been permanently sealed before residents can start returning home.

"We look forward to it being certified safe for residents to move home. The community is exhausted after living with these effects for over a hundred days and excited to be back in their homes," Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council President Paula Cracium said in a statement.

Not everyone was so excited. L.A. County Supervisor Michael Antonovich talked in a statement about being able to smell the methane at a community meeting last night.

"While the temporary containment of the Aliso Canyon well is good news, the victims’ needs cannot be ignored," Antonovich said. "Our residents, who have had to deal with this crisis since October 23rd and have had their holidays ruined and forced them out of their homes and schools, now have to bear the burden of rebuilding normal lives — still face uncertainty and fear of a repeated disaster from the remaining wells."

Antonovich is calling for residents to get more time to return home once it's been ruled safe — 30 days instead of eight.

"That's great that one well is capped and that leak is not going into the community anymore. It's awesome. It's a great start. But people are now terrified of this eight-day countdown to go back to their homes," said Save Porter Ranch's Matt Pakucko at an afternoon press conference. "There's been no medical study on the long-term effects of this. ... It's not time for champagne yet.”

SoCal Gas spokesperson Stephanie Donovan expressed confidence that there wouldn't be any long-term health effects, citing information from health agencies.

"But we understand also that every resident needs to do what he feels is best for his family, his children, their animals, whatever the case may be and that is a choice that they need to make," Donovan said. "We are looking forward to the time, we hope in the very near future, that people will feel comfortable to be back in their homes."

Still, Donovan made clear that subsidies for temporary housing would end eight days after they get the all-clear for residents to move back home.

The Environmental Defense Fund said in a statement that at least 95,000 tons of methane escaped, which it said would have the same 20-year climate impact as burning almost a billion gallons of gasoline.

"Now comes the critical process of making sure this doesn’t happen again and holding the company accountable," the group's California Oil & Gas Director Tim O'Connor said in a statement. "SoCalGas can’t respond with its checkbook alone. It has to take care of the neighbors it has harmed and take enough methane out of the air to make up for the damage this leak has caused."

O'Connor said that aging infrastructure and lax oversight were to blame.

"The leak may be stopped, but huge questions remain about the risks of gas-storage wells across California," said Maya Golden-Krasner, an L.A. attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. "State oil officials have left people across the state at risk from these unsafe wells, and the Aliso Canyon facility is clearly just too dangerous to stay open. It’s appalling that the state’s new emergency rules for gas storage are actually weaker than the industry’s own suggested safety practices."

California's U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer is scheduled to meet with Porter Ranch residents on Friday.

This chart from the South Coast Air Quality Management District apparently shows a sudden drop in methane levels starting at 8 a.m. Thursday:

This chart apparently shows a sudden drop in methane levels starting at 8 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016.
South Coast Air Quality Management District
This chart apparently shows a sudden drop in methane levels starting at 8 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016.

This story has been updated.