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InfrastructureLA, Calif. file criminal charges against SoCalGas over massive methane leak

Published 3 February 2016

Criminal charges were filed on Tuesday against Southern California Gas, the utility company whose blown-out natural gas well forced thousands of people in the Los Angeles area to evacuate their homes. The charges claim that the company failed to report the massive leak to the authorities, as it operating license requires.Papers filed in court yesterday claim that the company allowed the release of 80,000 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere.

SoCalGas's Aliso Canyon facility, site of methane leak // Source: wikipedia.com

Criminal charges were filed on Tuesday against Southern California Gas, the utility company whose blown-out natural gas well forced thousands of people in the Los Angeles area to evacuate their homes. The charges claim that the company failed to report the massive leak to the authorities, as it operating license requires. CNN reports that Southern California Gas now faces mounting legal challenges for its response to the underground blow-out of its natural gas storage well, which was discovered on 23 October.

The state of California joined a lawsuit against the firm.

SoCalGas was charged with failing to inform the authorities immediately upon discovering the blow-out at Aliso Canyon storage facility, and for releasing contaminants into the air.

The Alison Canyon facilities are among the U.S. largest natural gas storage wells, and are currently this single largest source of climate change pollution in California.

The release of the gas – made even more noxious by the chemical added to the gas — forced schools to close and more than 4,400 people to flee their homes.

Governor Jerry Brown last month declared a state of emergency in the area.

The company faces a maximum penalty of $25,000 a day for each of the three days it failed to report the breach to the emergency services, and up to $1,000 a day on the air pollution charges until the well is plugged.

LA District Attorney Jackie Lacey conceded that that the potential penalties would seem light to the thousands of residents of Porter Ranch who were forced from their homes.

“While we recognize that neither the criminal charges nor the civil lawsuits will offer the residents of Los Angeles County a complete solution, it is important that Southern California Gas Co be held responsible for its criminal actions,” Lacey said in a statement. “I believe we can best serve our community using the sanctions available through a criminal conviction to prevent similar public health threats in the future.”

In the suit, filed by the city and county of Los Angeles and joined by the State of California, the company is charged with releasing 80,000 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a more powerful climate pollutant than carbon dioxide, and the lawsuit argues that the breach will jeopardize California’s efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

“The impact of this unprecedented gas leak is devastating to families in our state, our environment and our efforts to combat global warming,’’ California Attorney General Kamala Harris said. “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.”

The company has so far failed to plug the leak, and it is now working on drilling a relief well. This is not a simple task: Drilling 8,000ft to intersect with a pipe that which is seven inches in diameter – and doing so without hitting another pipe and springing another leak – is daunting challenge.