Southern California Gas Co. failed to warn people in Porter Ranch and adjacent communities that they were being exposed to the worst methane gas blowout in American history and should pay restitution to the victims of this crime, an attorney told a Los Angeles Superior Court appellate court panel Thursday.
Lawyer Margaret Grignon said the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office filed misdemeanor criminal charges against the Gas Co., then allowed the utility to plead no contest to one of the counts without including provisions giving residents a chance to submit restitution claims against the Gas Co.
Grignon, who represents Demetrius Crump and other Porter Ranch residents in their restitution appeal, urged the appellate judges to reverse a trial court order denying the victims any restitution and send the case back to the lower court for a proper award to each claimant.
But lawyer Cassandra Thorp, on behalf of the District Attorney’s Office, said the appeal should be rejected.
“The victims have no standing,” Thorp said, adding that the residents cannot act as private prosecutors.
Nothing in the Victims’ Bill of Rights Act of 2008 gave crime victims the right to initiate an appeal, according to Thorp. Recognition by the courts of such a right would invade the prosecution’s exclusive powers to decide who and what to charge, what charges to offer for plea, and what cases to try, according to Thorp.
Lawyer Thomas Peterson, on behalf of the Gas. Co., agreed with Thorp, saying the residents’ appeal had no merit and that they should not be able interfere with the prosecution’s discretion to prosecute and resolve criminal cases.
The three-judge appellate panel, which hears appeals of misdemeanor convictions, did not immediately rule on the residents’ appeal. They took the case under submission and did not say when they would have a decision.
The appeal stems from the November 2016 sentencing hearing in Santa Clarita in which many residents complained they were left out of the settlement talks between prosecutors and the Gas. Co., which pleaded no contest in September 2016 to a misdemeanor count of failing to immediately report the gas leak, which began Oct. 23, 2015, and wasn’t capped until mid-February 2016.
Three other misdemeanor counts filed against the company were dismissed as part of the deal.
The $4 million settlement requires SoCalGas to install and maintain an infrared methane monitoring system at the Aliso Canyon site — estimated to cost between $1.2 million and $1.5 million — and to retain an outside company to test and certify that the monitoring system and real-time pressure monitors to be placed at each gas well are working properly.
Under the agreement, a half-dozen full-time employees must be hired to operate and maintain the new leak detection systems 24 hours a day at a cost of about $2.25 million over the next three years.
The agreement also calls for the company to revise and adopt new reporting policies for actual and threatened releases of hazardous materials to the appropriate agencies, and mandates training courses on proper notification procedures for all of the utility’s employees who work at natural gas storage facilities within Los Angeles County.
SoCalGas executives say sweeping safety improvements have already been made at Aliso Canyon, including the replacement of inner tubing in the wells and the installation of more than 40 miles of new steel piping, and have petitioned the state to allow the utility to resume injecting natural gas into the storage facility.