California sues SoCalGas over massive ongoing methane leak

[Breaking news update, posted at 9:12 p.m. ET]

The Southern California Gas Company will face four misdemeanors in connection with a gas leak at its Aliso Canyon facility, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey announced Tuesday. If convicted, SoCal Gas could be fined up to $25,000 a day for each day it failed to notify state authorities about the leak.

[Previous story, posted at 6:36 p.m. ET]

The Southern California Gas Company allegedly violated safety laws and failed to report a massive methane leak that continues to relocate thousands of people in the suburb of Porter Ranch, according to a lawsuit announced Tuesday by the state’s attorney general.

Attorney General Kamala Harris is seeking an injunction, civil penalties and restitution in her office’s lawsuit against the utility and the state Air Resources Board.

SoCalGas said it would respond to the lawsuit “through the judicial process,” but noted that the state lawsuit joins one filed last December by the Los Angeles City Attorney and Los Angeles County Counsel, alleging the leak as a public nuisance. The state lawsuit adds allegations of health and safety violations, the utility said.

Crews discovered the leak last October 23 and “in response, we activated the appropriate procedures to begin to address the leak,” the company said on its website.

The firm has asserted that “the leak does not pose an imminent threat to public safety,” but has apologized for the annoyance of the odorant in natural gas.

The gas leak has yet to be abated and has spewed 80,000 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere, forcing the relocation of 4,401 households to hotels and temporary housing, officials said.

Natural gas is 95% methane, so there is little difference between the two, a utility spokesman said.

As of last week, an additional 1,228 homes are in the process of relocating, the utility said.

“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,” Harris said in a statement.

“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,” Harris said.

The lawsuit alleged the utility broke state health and safety laws by failing to promptly control the release of the natural gas, Harris said. The suit makes claims of public nuisance under state laws and ensures “the interests of the people of the State of California are fully represented,” according to Harris’ office.

In January, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency over the colossal leak near the Los Angeles suburb of Porter Ranch.

SoCalGas is trying to plug the deep pipe that sprang the leak in the Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility, but those efforts may not see success until late February or March, the governor’s office has said. The utility has to drill down 8,500 feet to plug its source with concrete, and the drilling must proceed slowly, in part so it doesn’t puncture adjacent pipes and spring new leaks.

Environmental law activist Erin Brockovich called the leak “the BP spill on land,” a reference to the 2010 oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

On Tuesday, U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein, both of California, sought an amendment to an energy bill that would direct the energy secretary to lead “a broad federal review of the cause and the response” to the leak.

“Almost 3,700 households have been relocated to hotels and other temporary housing because the residents are experiencing headaches, nausea, dizziness, nosebleeds and other side effects stemming from the chemicals that give the natural gas its artificial odor,” Boxer said on the Senate floor, according to a statement from her office.

“Schools have temporarily closed because the kids and teachers can’t stand the smell all day. People’s homes, their furniture, everything they’ve left behind is becoming infused with this horrid smell and the chemicals,” Boxer said.

SoCalGas, a regulated subsidiary of Sempra Energy, is “the nation’s largest natural gas distribution utility,” providing service to 21.4 million consumers in more than 500 communities,” its website says.

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