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LA County to test air inside some Porter Ranch homes (updated)

The entrance to the SoCal Gas facility where a gas leak has continued since October 2015. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in the Porter Ranch community.
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
The entrance to the SoCal Gas Aliso Canyon storage facility.

Los Angeles County will test the air inside 100 to 200 homes in the Porter Ranch area to help reassure nervous residents that chemicals released in the natural gas leak are not at dangerous levels, a senior public health official said Wednesday. A Porter Ranch community activist argued that the plan does not go far enough and runs the risk of yielding inaccurate results if the sampling is done after people move back into their homes.

Thursday is Southern California Gas Co.'s deadline for those who relocated during the leak to return home; after that, it will not reimburse them for their housing. L.A. County lawyers are going to court Thursday morning seeking a temporary restraining order that would extend the deadline another three weeks, according to Tony Bell, spokesman for County Supervisor Mike Antonovich.

The indoor air testing is scheduled to begin as early as the end of next week, and will be completed within "less than a couple of weeks," according to Angelo Bellomo, deputy director for health protection at the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

Testifying before the hearing board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, Bellomo said outdoor air monitoring since Feb. 18, when the leak was confirmed to be sealed, has found methane and other chemicals found in natural gas to be well below dangerous levels.

"Nevertheless," he added, "the public is understandably concerned" that chemicals may have built up in homes that were vacated when families relocated during the four-month leak at the Aliso Canyon storage facility. So Public Health decided to undertake the indoor monitoring to provide "another level of assurance," said Bellomo.

The target neighborhoods for the testing will comprise roughly 500 homes "in the most problematic areas," he said, meaning those communities that registered the greatest number of complaints of headaches, dizziness and the like from the foul air related to the leak, and had the most people who relocated.

The county will probably select "somewhere in the range" of 100 to 200 homes for testing, said Bellomo. Crews will use "state-of-the-art" mobile equipment to collect and measure the air samples, which will provide enough data to determine whether levels are safe or whether further remediation is required, he added.

The plan is insufficient, said Paula Cracium, president of the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council. The county also needs to test the soil in backyards, pool water and "surfaces inside the homes," such as air ducts and carpets, "to see if any of this gas left any residue," she said.

The chemicals in question would not settle into curtains or rugs, said Bellomo, because unlike the particulate matter in cigarette smoke, "gases don't behave that way." 

He suggested that people ventilate their homes when they return to dissipate any residual gases.

Cracium also expressed concern that once people return home, their use of items such as cleaning solvents and hair spray will introduce chemicals into the air that will confound the county's testing equipment.

"It will be harder to get a good measurement," she asserted.

While expressing confidence that the results of the indoor air testing will be satisfactory, Bellomo said the county stands ready to help people return to temporary housing if the monitoring detects high levels of any dangerous chemicals.

SoCal Gas said Wednesday it will not extend its deadline for people to move back home.

Local and state air quality authorities have said the leak "posed no long-term health risk, and any short-term symptoms should have gone away when the leak was stopped two weeks ago," the company said in a statement.

"Based on discussions with the L.A. City Attorney's Office, as well as health analysis from all relevant regulatory experts, it's clear there is no health and safety benefit to extending the [eight-day relocation window] beyond what we and the City Attorney's Office have agreed upon," added SoCal Gas.

Bellomo noted that the county is also analyzing and publicizing air sample data collected by the Air Quality Management District, the state air resources board and other agencies on a weekly basis. In addition, Public Health has organized a network of community volunteers who are helping with "continuous monitoring" of the Porter Ranch area, he said.

This story has been updated.