File photo.
File photo.

State air quality officials Saturday halted a plan to capture and burn off the natural gas leaking from a storage facility in Porter Ranch over concerns that such an action could cause a potentially catastrophic explosion.

Meeting for the second straight Saturday at Granada Hills Charter High School, the Southern California Air Quality Management District was expected to approve the plan Saturday, but safety concerns prevailed. The plan must now be reviewed by fire officials and state and federal regulators, the AQMD’s deputy executive officer, Mohsen Nazemi, told the Los Angeles Times.

Thousands of residents have been relocated from the Porter Ranch area after complaining of health problems from the leak at Southern California Gas Company’s Aliso Canyon facility, which was discovered on Oct. 23. Thousands more have requested relocation.

Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in the Porter Ranch area due to the continuing leak. Brown’s emergency proclamation orders that all viable actions be taken to stop the leak, withdraw natural gas from the facility and develop contingency plans in case a relief well being dug at the site fails to cap the leaking gas.

Some Porter Ranch residents are calling for the U.S. government to declare the site of the leak a federal disaster area, which would make more funds available to help residents relocate.

The ongoing gas leak is one of the biggest environmental disasters in the United States since the 2010 BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

Many local residents want the facility shut down, a point they made during a rally held before today’s meeting began.

According to a recent securities filing, the Gas Co. has spent more than $50 million combating the leak. Citing the filing, the Los Angeles Times reported that more than 25 lawsuits have been filed against the utility, and “the cost of defending the lawsuits, and any damages, if awarded, could be significant.”

Gas. Co. attorney Robert Wyman of the firm Latham & Watkins LLP stated at last week’s meeting that the leak was “being addressed as safely and expeditiously as possible.”

“This is SoCalGas’s highest priority,” he said.

A group of state legislators unveiled a package of proposed legislation last week calling for an immediate moratorium on injecting any more gas into the well and calling for stepped-up inspections of aging wells statewide.

“We need to have more inspections, more pro-active inspections,” said Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills. “We need to have a plan as infrastructure ages out — some kind of policy and timeline for replacement. Always err on the side of caution, not hoping with your fingers crossed that there won’t be a problem.”

Pavley and other legislators noted that while seven state agencies are involved in monitoring or investigating the leak, there is no single agency with responsibility for oversight of such facility. Such oversight is called for in one of the bills the legislators plan to introduce. The bill would also require a utility responsible for environmental damage to bear the full cost of remediation without passing the bill to ratepayers.

The senators also plan to introduce a bill that would ban new injections of gas into Aliso Canyon and bar the use of aging wells at the site until they can be inspected to determine they do not pose any public safety risk.

—City News Service

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