California AG sues utility for massive SoCal natural gas leak

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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

LOS ANGELES -- California's attorney general added her name Tuesday to the long list of parties suing a utility company for the massive nonstop natural gas leak that has driven thousands of Los Angeles residents from their homes and spewed more than 2 million tons of climate-changing methane.

Attorney General Kamala Harris said Southern California Gas Co. violated several state laws and failed to report the leak to the necessary agencies for three days after its discovery in October near the Porter Ranch section of Los Angeles.

The leak that has been out of control nearly 15 weeks has created a public health and statewide environmental emergency, Harris said.

"The impact of this unprecedented gas leak is devastating to families in our state, our environment, and our efforts to combat global warming," Harris said in a statement. "Southern California Gas Company must be held accountable."

A company spokeswoman said it doesn't comment on pending litigation and was focused on stopping the leak, which it expects to plug by the end of the month.

SoCalGas is facing more than two dozen lawsuits - including potential class-actions from residents and businesses over the leak as well as from regional air regulators and city and county authorities. Harris, a Democrat running for U.S. Senate, is the first state official to sue, though her suit incorporates elements of lawsuits filed by the city and county of Los Angeles.

Several state agencies are investigating the blowout and have issued orders to the gas company to stop it and turn over records of the 60-year-old well and others from the field that is the largest natural gas storage facility in the West.

The company said the leak was detected Oct. 23, though residents weren't immediately notified and those who complained to the company about the nauseating smell were initially told it was part of routine maintenance.

The company didn't report the leak to the appropriate agency or the Office of Emergency Services until Oct. 26, Harris said in the suit that claims the company created a nuisance and violated health and safety codes and the state's unfair competition law.

The suit seeks unspecified damages.

Residents have reported symptoms including headaches, nosebleeds and rashes, among other woes.

Public health officials have blamed the maladies on odorant added to make the gas detectable. They have said the leak - mostly methane but including trace elements of the carcinogen benzene - is not expected to cause long-term health problems.

California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both Democrats, introduced a legislative amendment Tuesday that would ask the U.S. Department of Energy to investigate and stop the Aliso Canyon leak, and prevent similar disasters at the nation's more than 400 underground natural-gas storage sites.

Boxer stood by a dramatic infrared photo that showed the otherwise invisible plume of methane-laced natural gas from the blowout. She told fellow senators in a speech on the Senate floor that the leak was a "nightmare."

The Aliso Canyon may be only the first of countless gas fields at risk, the California senator said. "We better deal with it, and figure out how to deal with it," Boxer said.

Rep. Brad Sherman, a Democrat who lives in the Porter Ranch neighborhood, announced Tuesday that he's introducing legislation aimed at preventing future gas leaks by directing the federal Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to set safety standards for natural gas storage facilities.