July 8, 2019

The Toxic-Gas Catastrophe Hiding Beneath Your Home

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

In October 2015, a fragile well casing ruptured at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage field in Los Angeles, California—and no one could figure out how to stop it. For 118 days, 100,000 metric tons of methane and other hazardous pollutants seeped into the atmosphere. The single worst natural gas leak in American history was not only a disaster for the climate; it displaced thousands of nearby residents for months because of the risk of exposure to a host of toxic chemicals.

The New Republic reports that the massive Aliso Canyon storage field, which contained more than 110 underground wells, is just a small part of America’s much larger natural gas infrastructure. Approximately 15,000 such wells are active across the United States, and nearly half of them are concentrated in six states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Michigan, New York, and California.

For the many thousands of Americans who live near these wells, as well as federal regulators who are tasked with keeping the public safe, these wells are out of sight, out of mind. A new study published in the journal Environmental Health shows their dangers to be far greater than previously believed.

After surveying the surroundings of more than 9,000 active wells in those six states, the research team at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health found 6,000 located in suburban areas. Some 53,000 people live within 650 feet of a well, about 10,000 more people than previously estimated. The researchers found that most of those people had no idea about the threat lurking sometimes directly under their homes. 

"We are not saying immediately sell your homes if you live near these wells," said the study's co-author, Kate Konschnik, director of the Climate and Energy Program at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University. "But these facilities do need greater scrutiny than they've been getting. This is a manageable hazard, but that’s not the same as being managed."