A Superior Court judge heard arguments Friday but did not immediately rule on a bid by Porter Ranch-area residents affected by the 2015-16 Aliso Canyon natural gas leak to receive financial restitution for the Southern California Gas Co.’s delay in reporting the leak to state regulators.
Southern California Gas Co. 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 charges — one count of discharging air contaminants and two more counts of failing to report the release of hazardous materials — were dismissed as part of the deal.
At the sentencing hearing in November 2016, some residents complained that they were left out of the settlement talks between prosecutors and SoCalGas, and they were left unable to seek restitution. Last year, a state appeals court panel ruled that residents were entitled to a hearing on “whether petitioners can prove damages from the three-day delay in reporting the leak, as charged in the criminal complaint.”
Residents cannot seek restitution stemming from any criminal charges against SoCalGas that were dismissed, including the release of contaminants into the air, the court ruled.
SoCalGas has insisted there is no basis for restitution to be paid to residents solely based on the issue of the reporting delay.
Attorneys for the residents, however, argued that residents did sustain damages due to the delay, saying they could have taken precautions more quickly to protect themselves.
“People are still sick and their homes are still contaminated,” residents’ attorney R. Rex Parris told reporters outside court Friday.
A judge took the matter under submission and is expected to issue a ruling in the coming weeks.
Under its $4 million settlement agreement with prosecutors, SoCalGas was required 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.
The agreement also mandated the hiring of a half-dozen full-time employees to operate and maintain the new leak-detection systems 24 hours a day at a cost of about $2.25 million over three years.
The agreement also called for the company to revise and adopt new reporting policies for actual and threatened releases of hazardous materials to the appropriate agencies, and mandated training courses on proper notification procedures for all of the utility’s employees who work at natural gas storage facilities within Los Angeles County.
The Aliso Canyon gas leak spewed more than 100,000 tons of methane into the air, making it the largest methane leak in U.S. history. Residents contend they were also exposed to benzene, uranium, crude oil and other cancer-causing chemicals.
Health concerns stemming from the gas leak prompted thousands of residents to move out of the area into temporary housing at the expense of the Gas Co.