California utility faces criminal charges for catastrophic gas leak

Aliso canyon
CC BY 2.0 EARTHWORKS/flickr

Southern California Gas Co. is facing charges and a slew of lawsuits for the Porter Ranch disaster.

In December we wrote about the massive underground natural gas storage facility in the Los Angeles hills that ruptured in October. Methane has been gushing ever since; as of the end of the year, more than 150 million pounds of methane had leaked into the air. (See the details here: This is the ongoing gas leak in California that's an epic ecological disaster.)

In the meantime, it continues to leak. And leak and leak and leak. Along with massive amounts of methane, the leak is releasing trace amounts of chemicals like the carcinogen benzene, as well as odorants that cause nausea, headaches and nosebleeds, reports Camila Domonoske for NPR.

"The amount of gas leaking from the underground storage field has fallen since it peaked in late November, but the utility doesn't expect to plug the leak until later this month," freelance reporter Danielle Karson tells NPR. "Meanwhile, the fumes from thousands of tons of methane gas have created a public health nightmare. Two schools have closed, and thousands of people living nearby have been relocated."

Now Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey has gotten involved, charging the company that owns the storage well, Southern California Gas Co., with three misdemeanor counts for neglecting to report the leak in addition to a misdemeanor count over the pollutants. Which is something, but feels a bit like a relative wrist slap: If convicted, the company could be fined up to $25,000 a day for each day that it failed to notify the California Office of Emergency Services – from October 23 to 26. The company would also be fined up to $1,000 per day for air pollution violations.

“While we recognize that neither the criminal charges nor the civil lawsuits will offer the residents of Los Angeles County a complete solution, it is important that Southern California Gas Co. be held responsible for its criminal actions,” Lacey said in a statement.

“We will do everything we can as prosecutors to help ensure that the Aliso Canyon facility is brought into compliance. I believe we can best serve our community using the sanctions available through a criminal conviction to prevent similar public health threats in the future.”

So it’s a start. But more fire is coming from other sources as well. NPR notes that the company has already been sued by the city and county of Los Angeles, as well as owners of businesses in Porter Ranch, residents of Porter Ranch, and the South Coast Air Quality Management District. In addition, California Attorney General Kamala Harris just announced that that she is suing the company for creating a public nuisance and violating the state health and safety code.

Tags: California | Corporate Responsibility | Pollution

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