Regulators approve health study on huge California gas leak

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Southern California Gas Leak Could Take Months to Fix

Regional air quality regulators in California voted on Saturday to require the utility responsible for a ruptured underground pipeline in the Los Angeles area to underwrite an independent study on the health effects of a huge methane leak from the site.

The natural gas leak in Aliso Canyon, just outside the Los Angeles neighborhood of Porter Ranch, began on Oct. 23 and ranks as the worst ever in California.

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Odorized methane fumes sickened scores of people and led to the temporary relocation of thousands of residents from the northern Los Angeles community near the leaking storage field in Aliso Canyon.

The 4-1 vote on Saturday by a hearing board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), a regional agency, stopped short of requiring the utility to extract more gas from the crippled field than it already had pledged to siphon out, under orders from state officials.

Activists protest the gas leak in Aliso Canyon:

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Aliso Canyon, California gas leak
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Regulators approve health study on huge California gas leak
Porter Ranch residents hold a portrait of Governor Jerry Brown as they protest outside a meeting of the Air Quality Management Board (AQMD) over the continuing gas leak that started in October and which has forced thousands of residents to flee from the Los Angeles suburb of Porter Ranch, California on January 23, 2016. The governor of California, Jerry Brown recently declared a state of emergency in the Los Angeles community where a massive gas leak has forced the evacuation of nearby residents from their homes. / AFP / Mark Ralston (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Gurbux Singh joins other Porter Ranch residents to protest outside a meeting of the Air Quality Management Board (AQMD)over the continuing gas leak that started in October and which has forced thousands of residents to flee from the Los Angeles suburb of Porter Ranch, California on January 23, 2016. The governor of California, Jerry Brown recently declared a state of emergency in the Los Angeles community where a massive gas leak has forced the evacuation of nearby residents from their homes. / AFP / Mark Ralston (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
DIAMOND BAR , CA., JANUARY 20, 2016: Porter Ranch residents and activists protesting the gas leak in Aliso Canyon hold their signs during a meeting of the South Coast AQMD January 20, 2016. The South Coast Air Quality Management District board in Diamond Bar listened to testimony from the public and from the Southern California Gas Company over the gas leak in Porter Ranch. The hearings focused on a proposed order to cut the odors from the Aliso Canyon gas leak and to possibly shut down the well permanently. The board agreed that the hearings will be continued until next Saturday at a venue closer to the gas leak (Photo by Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
DIAMOND BAR , CA., JANUARY 20, 2016: Porter Ranch activists (L-R) Dr. Leah Garland, Walker Foley and Alexandra Nagy chant and cheer in front of the South Coast Air Qulaity Management District offices in Diamond Bar prior to the board meeting Jnauary 20, 2016. The South Coast Air Quality Management District board in Diamond Bar listened to testimony from the public and from the Southern California Gas Company over the gas leak in Porter Ranch. The hearings focused on a proposed order to cut the odors from the Aliso Canyon gas leak and to possibly shut down the well permanently. There was no resolution to the issue today and the meeting will be continued until next Saturday at a venue closer to the gas leak (Photo by Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
DIAMOND BAR , CA., JANUARY 20, 2016: South Coast Air Quality Management District Board Chairman Edward Camarena listens to lawyers and advisors during a recess in the hearings in Diamond Bar where the public and representatives from the Southern California Gas Company are testifying about the gas leak in Porter Ranch January 20, 2016. The hearings focused on a proposed order to cut the odors from the Aliso Canyon gas leak and to possibly shut down the well permanently (Photo by Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
PORTER RANCH, CA - JANUARY 19: Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, right, with Councilmember Mitch Englander, center, walk out of the Southern California Gas Co's Aliso Canyon Storage Facility to talk to media about their observations after they toured the site on January 19, 2016 in Porter Ranch, California. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
PORTER RANCH, CA - JANUARY 19: Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, right, with Clouncilmember Mitch Englander, center, talks about his observations after they toured the site of the natural gas leak at Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon Storage Facility on January 19, 2016 in Porter Ranch, California. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
PORTER RANCH, CA - JANUARY 19: Local residents Maureen Capra, left, and Lin McDonough, right, listen to Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, with Councilmember Mitch Englander, and State Assemblymember Matthew Dababneh, talk about their observations after they toured the site of the natural gas leak at Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon Storage Facility on January 19, 2016 in Porter Ranch, California. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
PORTER RANCH, CA - JANUARY 19: Local resident Maureen Capra holds sign as she listens to Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, with Councilmember Mitch Englander, and State Assemblymember Matthew Dababneh, talk about their observations after they toured the site of the natural gas leak at Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon Storage Facility on January 19, 2016 in Porter Ranch, California. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
PORTER RANCH, CA - JANUARY 16: Sharon Dormani testifies at a public hearing before the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) regarding a proposed stipulated abatement order to stop a nearby massive natural gas leak, on January 16, 2016 in Granada Hills, near Porter Ranch, California. More than 80,000 metric tons of methane gas have spewed from the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility since October 23, causing thousands of Porter Ranch residents to leave their homes, and the closures of two schools where students are being bussed to campuses farther away from the gas. State officials are now concerned that a seventh attempt to plug the well may have increased the chance of a blowout, which would greatly increase the release of gas as well as the risk of a massive well fire if ignited by a spark. The Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) hopes to repair the leak by sometime in March. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
PORTER RANCH, CA - JANUARY 16: A woman holds a sign while attending a public hearing before the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) regarding a proposed stipulated abatement order to stop a nearby massive natural gas leak, on January 16, 2016 in Granada Hills, near Porter Ranch, California. More than 80,000 metric tons of methane gas have spewed from the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility since October 23, causing thousands of Porter Ranch residents to leave their homes, and the closures of two schools where students are being bussed to campuses farther away from the gas. State officials are now concerned that a seventh attempt to plug the well may have increased the chance of a blowout, which would greatly increase the release of gas as well as the risk of a massive well fire if ignited by a spark. The Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) hopes to repair the leak by sometime in March. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
Residential homes in the Porter Ranch Estates community sit at the foothills near the Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon facility in Porter Ranch, California, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 15, 2016. Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency to protect residents from gas that has been flowing from the Southern California Gas Co., a unit of Sempra, underground storage site near Los Angeles. State and federal agencies are investigating the incident while Southern California Gas has paid to temporarily relocate about 2,500 residents from the Porter Ranch neighborhood, located about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the broken well. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Residential homes in the Porter Ranch Estates community sit at the foothills near the Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon facility in Porter Ranch, California, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 15, 2016. Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency to protect residents from gas that has been flowing from the Southern California Gas Co., a unit of Sempra, underground storage site near Los Angeles. State and federal agencies are investigating the incident while Southern California Gas has paid to temporarily relocate about 2,500 residents from the Porter Ranch neighborhood, located about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the broken well. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A worker walks past the Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon facility entrance in Porter Ranch, California, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 15, 2016. Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency to protect residents from gas that has been flowing from the Southern California Gas Co., a unit of Sempra, underground storage site near Los Angeles. State and federal agencies are investigating the incident while Southern California Gas has paid to temporarily relocate about 2,500 residents from the Porter Ranch neighborhood, located about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the broken well. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A 'No Trespassing' sign sits on a hill at the Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon facility in Porter Ranch, California, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 15, 2016. Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency to protect residents from gas that has been flowing from the Southern California Gas Co., a unit of Sempra, underground storage site near Los Angeles. State and federal agencies are investigating the incident while Southern California Gas has paid to temporarily relocate about 2,500 residents from the Porter Ranch neighborhood, located about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the broken well. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A residential home with solar panels sits near the Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon facility in Porter Ranch, California, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 15, 2016. Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency to protect residents from gas that has been flowing from the Southern California Gas Co., a unit of Sempra, underground storage site near Los Angeles. State and federal agencies are investigating the incident while Southern California Gas has paid to temporarily relocate about 2,500 residents from the Porter Ranch neighborhood, located about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the broken well. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Gas extraction is designed to ease pressure on the ruptured wellhead and slow the leak.

Lawyers from Southern California Gas Co, the owner of the facility, told the AQMD hearing board any requirement from them could not conflict with the orders from the state Public Utilities Commission and Governor Jerry Brown.

"We're going to comply with the law, we are going to do what they've asked us to do," Robert Wyman, a lawyer for SoCalGas, told the AQMD regulators at the meeting in Los Angeles.

After that, the board members required the utility to underwrite an independent study on the effects of the leak on local residents and imposed additional monitoring and reporting requirements on the utility.

"We may decide in the future to take additional steps but that's no reason not to take these steps now," said David Holtzman, one member of the board who voted for the order.

Los Angeles County health officials, who note that Porter Ranch residents have complained of such ailments as headaches and respiratory irrigation from an odorant in natural gas, have said past studies found only short-term health effects from the odorant. But they said continued health monitoring is needed.

Even so, disgruntled residents have demanded the 3,600-acre (1,457-hectare) facility, where surplus gas is pumped underground and stored until needed, be shut down altogether.

Many community members among the 300 attendees at the meeting at a Los Angeles hotel expressed displeasure at the limited scope of the AQMD's action. Some held up small signs that read "Shut it ALL down."

After Wyman, the SoCalGas attorney, addressed the AQMD hearing board, spectators sighed loudly and many of them left the meeting.

Tim O'Connor, director of California oil and gas for the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund, said the AQMD was limited by an overlap of various government agencies.

SoCal Gas, a division of San Diego-based Sempra Energy, projects it may take until late February to plug the rupture through a relief well that engineers began drilling in December.

(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis, additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Diane Craft)

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