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 February 6, 2016 - 10:45 AM EST
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As fix nears for gas leak, residents worry about return home

(AP) — With a possible end in sight to a massive 15-week gas leak, anxious residents displaced from a
Los Angeles
neighborhood are skeptical a fix is near and worry they may be forced to return too soon to unhealthy homes.

Barbara Fass, who temporarily moved out of her

Porter Ranch
home of 26 years because of the overwhelming stench of gas, said she's ready to put the "big inconvenience" behind her as soon as possible, but she wants to be assured that her home will be safe when she returns.

Oily residue that rained down during previous unsuccessful attempts to plug the leak coated her husband's car and their house reeked like petroleum at times.

"I'd like to think it's fixed," Fass said Friday. "You're just going with what the gas company says and they haven't been that trustworthy. It's kind of scary."

Wade Crowfoot, an adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown, told a community meeting Thursday that Southern California Gas Co. could plug the leaking well by the end of next week, though a utility spokeswoman cautioned that's a tentative timetable.

The leak first reported in October has displaced thousands of residents — many of whom have complained about headaches, nosebleeds, nausea. Public health officials blame those and other symptoms on the odorant added to the gas and say they don't expect long-term health effects.

The gas company apologized for being slow to let the public know about the leak. It didn't begin offering free relocation services until ordered by public health officials nearly a month after the leak was detected Oct. 23.

At that point, many residents were angry at the company and pushing state regulators to shut down the storage facility, where natural gas is pumped a mile-and-a-half underground into empty oil wells. It's the largest natural gas storage facility in the West and a major source of energy for

Southern California

Under an agreement in December with the

Los Angeles
city attorney, the company offered to put affected residents up in hotels and has offered short-term rentals of houses and apartments. The agreement would allow the company to stop paying for short-term housing, such as hotels, two days after the state declares the well permanently sealed.

Although the company said it would honor longer-term leases and is renegotiating when it will stop paying for hotels, the 48-hour provision had people on edge Friday when it became clear that the gas company was ahead of its projection to stop the leak by the end of February.

Lenny Sempertegui, who has been living with his wife and 1 1/2-year old son in a small

apartment since the end of December, said he was told the three-month lease he signed would be honored, but he doesn't have anything in writing.

Sempertegui said he would hope to stay in the apartment at least an additional week after the well is capped "because who knows what's going to happen?"

He was waiting outside an office SoCalGas set up to handle requests for help and said he has no faith in the gas company. He had a two hour wait ahead of him to press for reimbursement for rent and other expenses that total nearly $4,000 a month.

"I'm getting more headaches from this," he said about his multiple visits to the office.

The company said it has relocated nearly 5,700 households and installed thousands of air filter and purification systems in homes in the community. Many of those in line were seeking air filtration equipment, which won't be offered once the well is plugged.

Michael Cain, who was seeking reimbursement for the filters that have allowed him to stay in his home, said he was "overjoyed" at the prospect the leak would be stopped soon.

But he said he was concerned about other aging wells in the storage field. Many are the same vintage as the failed 1953 well that had its safety valve removed.

"It could happen again at any moment," Cain said. "We've been really good neighbors and they've abused it by not doing proper maintenance and taking safety valves off."

In response to an emergency declaration by the governor, state regulators on Friday put in place stronger rules for oil and gas storage facilities that they said will require additional tests, inspections and monitoring requirements.

Some experts and environmentalists said the new regulations don't go far enough.

"These dangerously weak rules don't even measure up to the industry's own minimal safety suggestions for operating gas storage wells," said attorney Maya Golden-Krasner of the Center for Biological Diversity.

This story has been corrected to show that the leak was detected on Oct. 23, instead of reported on Oct. 23.

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Source: News (February 6, 2016 - 10:45 AM EST)

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