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Families Sue As Thousands Flee Gas Leak "Disaster" In Los Angeles

Two dozen families are suing over a massive gas leak that's forced thousands of Los Angeles residents to flee their homes. “I’ve never seen anything like this in the 25 years I’ve been doing this,” Erin Brockovich said.

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Since October, residents near a natural gas storage facility in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Porter Ranch have suffered nose bleeds, nausea, respiratory trouble, and headaches.

The gas leak, due to a rupture 8,000 feet below ground, was discovered Oct. 23, and it may not be sealed until March or May. Gas company officials have stressed that the leak, which is about a mile from the closest home, is not dangerous — though they have said the odor is annoying.

Now, 25 families are taking Southern California Gas as well as its parent company to court, seeking financial relief to cover temporary housing, medical bills, and potentially lost property value. They fear the air quality could lead to long-term health problems, including cancer. And they're asking new construction at the facility stop until the cause of the leak has been determined, and some sort of emergency system is put into place.

“They’re not crazy,” Erin Brockovich, the longtime environmental activist, told BuzzFeed News. “They’re not making it up.”

Brockovich, who lives in Southern California herself, has been working with law firm Weitz & Luxenberg. The lawsuit is one of several already filed against the gas company, and Brockovich expects more could happen. The residents she's talked to had no idea they were living near such a large natural gas storage facility, and now, they're not sure what's in the air they're breathing.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in the 25 years I’ve been doing this,” she said.

The leak is spewing out 100,000 pounds of methane every hour, according to the Los Angeles city attorney, upping California’s output of the greenhouse gas by 25%.

Work on a relief well, necessary to plugging the leak, began on Dec. 4, and officials expect it to be complete in three to four months. In the meantime, 1,675 households have been paid to relocate, the move of another 1,200 is in the works, and air filters have been provided to others.

Though the lawsuits could take years to resolve, Brockovich said the gas company needs to be held accountable. She called on Los Angeles residents to come together and make their voices heard: to demand the gas company ensure a safe, healthy environment for all their neighbors.

"This is a disaster of their own making," she said.

Here's what some residents say they've experienced, according to the complaint:

-- Elizabeth and Rene Castillo, and their two children, have experienced vomiting, headaches, and irritated eyes. Their children have been to the doctor multiple times for infections and respiratory trouble. The family were first relocated by the gas company to a hotel, where they slept in a single bed. After a week, they were forced to move to another hotel, and they expect they will be forced to move again soon.

-- Kristina Huff-Hemmis and Jason Richard Short, who work from home, have also experienced health problems. Among them, Short has lost his voice — a particular problem since he is a singer. Their dogs and cats have also become sick, resulting in multiple trips to the vet for lesions and respiratory problems. They have moved to a vacation rental after being informed they would have to wait for assistance from the gas company; so far, they've received no reimbursement for the thousands they've spent on temporary housing.

-- Mary Armoudjian and her daughter have experienced nausea, irritated eyes, and headaches. Armoudjian missed a week of work in November, and her daughter has missed school on at least 10 days.

-- Movses Hrair and Zepur Karamanoukian have been experiencing symptoms daily. She had recently suffered a stroke when the gas leak was officially identified. Since then, a doctor has told her she is suffering from methane poisoning and is in danger of another stroke. The relocation services offered have not met their needs, and the air purifiers have significantly increased their electricity bill.

-- Annette and Greg Hammel relocated as soon as possible after the gas leak. She is a two-time cancer survivor, and he has suffered cognitive impairment, fainting spells, headaches, and fatigue. They have been told they can't stay in their hotel past Dec. 22. Now, they're looking for new accommodations for not only themselves, but their daughter and her fiancé, who are coming from college to stay for the holidays.


Claudia Koerner is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.

Contact Claudia Koerner at claudia.koerner@buzzfeed.com.

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