Natural gas has been leaking from Southern California Gas Company’s Aliso Canyon storage facility since last October, closing schools and forcing thousands of Porter Ranch residents to relocate. Now, Los Angeles County prosecutors say the company took too long to notify the proper authorities.
A criminal complaint filed Tuesday by LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacey alleges that SoCalGas not only illegally discharged air contaminants but also failed to immediately report the release of this hazardous material to some agencies, in violation of health and safety laws.
The complaint alleges that, between October 23rd and 26th of 2015, SoCalGas “failed, upon discovery, to immediately report a release or threatened release of hazardous material…to the California Emergency Management Agency and to the unified program agency.” It also charges the company with failing to notify the health hazardous materials division of the forester and fire warden. In total, the utility faces four misdemeanor charges—the first criminal charges to emerge out of this months-long environmental crisis, which has been declared a state of emergency by California Governor Jerry Brown and drawn the attention of environmental activist Erin Brockovich.
“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,” DA Lacey said in a statement.
A spokesperson for SoCalGas told The Daily Beast, “We have just been notified of this filing and we are still reviewing it. We have been working with regulatory agencies to mitigate the odors associated with the natural gas leak and to abate the gas leak as quickly as safety allows. We will defend ourselves vigorously through the judicial process.”
It’s not just odors that Porter Ranch residents are worried about. As the Los Angeles Times notes, residents have reported experiencing headaches, nausea, nosebleeds, and dizziness as a result of the methane leak, which was first reported to regulators over 100 days ago. The newspaper has been collecting stories of symptoms from residents who lived near the leak.
“I can’t sleep, my throat hurts, my nose bleeds,” said Maritza Mendizabal, who has lived in Porter Ranch since 1970. “I cough, my nose is congested. I wake up with bad headaches.”
“My 8-month-old daughter had a rash on her back and neck, my husband was violently vomiting, [and] I had a sore throat and mild headaches,” said Laura Zolonz, who bought her first family home in Porter Ranch.
The leak also contains small amounts of the carcinogen benzene; however, a report from the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) found that “[n]early all measured benzene concentrations in the Porter Ranch community during the leak are similar to background levels generally found in the Los Angeles area.”
A preliminary assessment from the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) came to a similar conclusion in mid-January. But cancer scare aside, the air pollution regulatory agency still had plenty of allegations left to level at SoCalGas in its own late January civil suit, which claimed that the leak is an “ongoing public nuisance” and that it has “contributed to global warming by emitting billions of cubic feet of methane into the atmosphere.”
If the AQMD suit is successful, SoCalGas could be fined up to $250,000 per day of the leak. That dollar amount would come on top of any potential penalties resulting from the many other civil lawsuits that have been filed against the utility, including one announced on Tuesday by California Attorney General Kamala Harris.
The criminal charges now facing SoCalGas carry a penalty of up to $1,000 per day for air pollution violations, and $25,000 for each day that it failed to notify the California Office of Emergency Services, the DA’s office said.
SoCalGas first discovered the leak on October 23rd but it took over two months to locate the precise site in an 8,700-foot well. In its official timeline, the utility claims that it alerted officials of various LA County and state agencies, including AQMD, the day they discovered the leak.
But prosecutors believe SoCalGas took until October 26th, three days later, to inform other agencies that also should have been immediately notified. The relevant portion of California’s Health and Safety Code states that “any release or threatened release of a hazardous material” should be “immediately report[ed]” to the unified program agency.
LA County’s laws on hazardous materials mandating a similar degree of urgency, requiring the forester and fire warden’s hazardous materials division to be notified of a release “[a]s soon as” it is discovered.
The gas leak is still ongoing but the well from which it emanates could be sealed by late February. But the District Attorney wants to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
Said DA Lacey, “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.”