Southern California Gas Co. will pay a $4.3 million settlement for failing to quickly report its Aliso Canyon natural gas leak last fall near Porter Ranch, which sickened and displaced thousands of residents for months, the Los Angeles County district attorney announced Tuesday.
The gas company agreed to pay the settlement after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor charge of failing to immediately report the Oct. 23, 2015, gas leak, the largest in the nation. The announcement comes a day after another Aliso Canyon leak, the fourth since last fall.
“This agreement ensures that Southern California Gas Co. is held accountable for its criminal actions for failing to immediately report the leak,” said Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey in a statement.
•RELATED STORY: ‘Small’ natural gas leak halted at Aliso Canyon storage facility, SoCalGas says
Lacey had filed four misdemeanor criminal charges against the company last February, accusing it of releasing air pollutants and neglecting to report them until three days after its Aliso Canyon Gas Facility sprung a leak last fall.
The leak at one of 115 gas field wells north of Porter Ranch forced the relocation of two schools and the evacuation of as many as 12,000 residents for four months.
North San Fernando Valley residents complained of headaches, nosebleeds and nausea linked to an odor-causing additive in the natural gas.
•RELATED STORY: DA files criminal charges against SoCalGas over Porter Ranch leak as legal challenges mount
The leak spewed nearly 100,000 metric tons of methane before it was plugged on Feb. 11.
SoCalGas, owned by San Diego-based Sempra Energy, faces a flood of civil lawsuits, as well as pressure from environmental groups and neighbors to shut down its underground gas field.
It also must adhere to a nuisance abatement order with air regulators, which calls for air monitoring, a community health study and more. A South Coast Air Quality Management District Hearing Board meeting will discuss the order at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Woodland Hills Hilton, 6360 Canoga Ave., Woodland Hills.
SoCalGas said in a statement Tuesday it was committed to working with its regulators to address issues at Aliso Canyon.
It also said its 3,600-acre gas field is critical to the reliability of natural gas and power services in Southern California. It said the company was diligently working with state officials to complete a comprehensive safety review of the facility and was committed to providing safe and reliable energy to millions.
“Today’s agreement, which provides for the implementation of certain approved operational enhancements, including updated notification, monitoring, and training procedures, is another important step in our efforts to put the leak behind us and to win back the trust of the community,” the company statement said. “These are in addition to other enhancements that have already been instituted by the company.
Those advocating for the gas field closure, however, said the settlement wasn’t enough.
“No fine can make SoCalGas’ aging Aliso Canyon Storage facility safe,” said Alexandra Nagy, an organizer for Food & Water Watch, an environmental group. “Yesterday’s leak, the fourth since last October’s blowout, shows that the facility is beyond simple repair and continues to pose a threat to the health of the families of Porter Ranch and to the environment.
“What’s more, this fine is barely a slap on the wrist for SoCalGas whose parent company made $10 billion in revenue last year.”
The SoCalGas agreement with the DA’s Office outlines several terms:
•It requires the company to revise and adopt new reporting policies for actual and threatened releases of hazardous materials to appropriate agencies.
•It further mandates training courses on proper notification procedures for all SoCalGas employees who work at natural gas storage facilities within Los Angeles County.
•Prosecutors said the utility will be ordered to pay $307,500, which includes a maximum fine of $75,000 plus a penalty assessment of $232,500.
•The agreement says SoCalGas must install and maintain a new, infrared methane-monitoring system at the Aliso Canyon Gas Facility site. The cost: between $1.2 and $1.5 million.
•Real-time pressure monitors also will be placed at each of 114 remaining gas wells as required by the state. The settlement requires that an independent company certify the systems are working properly.
•A half dozen employees will be hired to operate and maintain the new leak detection systems round the clock. The cost of these employees, Lacey said, will be about $2.25 million for three years.
•In addition to its $307,500 fine and penalty, the company must pay $246,672.88 for the cost of the investigation and emergency response by the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Health and Hazardous Materials Division.
Terms of the settlement must be wrapped up by the Nov. 29 sentencing date, when the remaining three counts against the company will be dismissed. Officials noted that the settlement announced Tuesday does not interfere with pending civil actions against the company.
With this conviction, Lacey said, Southern California Gas Co. is “on notice” and could face a more serious criminal penalty in the future if the same unlawful conduct occurs.
“Our office has helped bring the Aliso Canyon facility into compliance, keeping in mind that public safety is of the utmost importance,” Lacey said. “Going forward the protections put in place by this agreement create a safer facility for its employees, the environment and the surrounding communities.”
The settlement came one day after the gas company notified Porter Ranch residents regulators late Monday afternoon about a another leak at the Aliso Canyon facility. The leak, the fourth one since the massive well breech last October, was in an above ground pipe used to withdraw gas from the storage field, the company said.
“The leak was quickly isolated and stopped. SoCalGas has notified the relevant agencies and is in the process of making permanent repairs. At no point was there a threat to public safety,” said company spokesman Chris Gilbride in a statement.
The community activist group Save Porter Ranch issued a sharp rebuke of the gas company’s announcement about the latest leak.
“Since they have a disseminated so many lies and misinformation from Oct. 23 when they said “there is no leak,” I take this ‘report’ with a pillar of salt,” said group co-founder and President Matt Pakucko in a statement. “Save Porter Ranch social media indicates that people have been having a lot of nosebleeds headaches and other symptoms increasing over the past couple weeks.”
Congressman Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks and a Porter Ranch resident, said the settlement is good news but more regulatory oversight of the Aliso Canyon facility is needed.
“This is a big Aliso Canyon day,” said Sherman during a phone interview from his Washington office. “The fine is rather modest. Most of the $4 million settlement consists of safety actions that are required. I think this settlement is a step forward.”
Staff Writer Greg Wilcox contributed to this report.