By Miriam Raftery
Updated February 3, 2016 with SoCalGas response.
February 2, 2016 (San Diego)—Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacy today announced filing of four misdemeanor criminal charges against Sempra Energy’s Southern California Gas (SoCalGas) over the leak at its San Aliso underground natural gas facility. The leak has pumped 80,000 metric tons of methane into the air, sickening residents of nearby Porter Ranch and causing thousands to relocate.
In addition, California Attorney General Kamala Harris today announced a civil suit filed by California against SoCalGas, which provides gas to most southern California counties. The new suits, along with suits filed by residents, add to the financial toll that SoCalGas and potentially, Sempra ratepayers may ultimately be forced to cover.
"We are reviewing these lawsuits and will defend ourselves vigorously through the judicial process," So Cal Gas spokesperson Kristine Lloyd told East County Magazine. "Our focus continues to be on working hard to stop the gas leak, mitigate the odors associated with the leak as quickly as safety allows, and to address our neighbors’ concerns. We don’t have any additional information to share at this time on these legal cases."
The civil suit, filed on behalf of the California Air Resource Board, alleges that the company violated state health and safety laws by failing to promptly control the natural gas release and report it to authorities. The suit also cites the environmental damage caused by the leak, undermining the state’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to slow the pace of climate change.
“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,” District Attorney Lacey said. “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.”
The criminal complaint charges the company with four misdemeanor counts: three counts of failing to report the release of hazardous materials from Oct. 23 to Oct. 26, 2015, and one count of discharging air contaminants, beginning on Oct. 23, 2015, to the present. 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. The company also could be fined up to $1,000 per day for air pollution violations. Arraignment is set for February 17.
The civil suit filed by the state of California seeks an injunction, civil penalties, and restitution for damages. The state’s suit alleges claims of public nuisance, health and safety code violations for emitting air contaminants and failing to report hazardous material discharges, as well as violations of California’s Unfair Competition Law and impairment of the state’s natural resources. As of January 8, 2016, 11 weeks after the leak was discovered, an estimated two million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (two percent of statewide greenhouse gas emissions for the same period) were emitted—a total that continues to mount as the leak continues.
“The impact of this unprecedented gas leak is devastating to families in our state, our environment, and our efforts to combat global warming. Southern California Gas Company must be held accountable,” said Attorney General Harris. “This gas leak has caused significant damage to the Porter Ranch community as well as our statewide efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow the impacts of climate change. My office will continue to lead this cross-jurisdictional enforcement action to ensure justice and relief for Californians and our environment.”
“This action recognizes the impacts of this ongoing leak on our climate and ensures there’s accountability,” said California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols.
The Attorney General’s filing complements ongoing actions of the numerous government agencies that are coordinating efforts related to the gas leak. In addition to the Air Resources Board, these agencies include the California Energy Commission, the California Public Utilities Commission, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment and the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Also included are the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 9 and Los Angeles County.
SoCalGas has indicated it is drilling an 8,500 foot deep relief well in hopes of plugging the leak by later this month, if all goes well, according to a recent press release. Lloyd told ECM, " In addition to working around the clock to stop the leak, we are cooperating with ongoing regulatory reviews of our Aliso Canyon gas storage operations including responding to data requests about our operations."