Aug. 08–State and local officials on Wednesday announced a tentative settlement in lawsuits filed against Southern California Gas Co. over the biggest methane leak in U.S. history.
The $119.5-million settlement with city, county and state officials and prosecutors will resolve agencies’ claims against the gas company. In exchange, the utility will pay civil penalties and fund expanded air monitoring, a government-administered health study and environmental and climate mitigation projects across the region and state.
For the next eight years, SoCal Gas agreed to continue monitoring and reporting air quality along the fence line of the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility, create an internal safety committee and hire an independent ombudsman to monitor and report on safety at the site.
In October 2015, a ruptured well at the facility near Porter Ranch began spewing gas and eventually became the nation’s largest methane leak. It took nearly four months to seal the well.
Families who lived nearby complained of health issues, including nausea, headaches and nosebleeds. Thousands evacuated their homes as a safety precaution.
The leak has prompted litigation both by government agencies and residents who say they are still feeling the health effects from the incident.
Lawsuits began in late 2015 while the leak was still uncontrolled, with the Los Angeles city attorney’s office accusing the gas company of creating a public nuisance by sending the sickening fumes into surrounding communities.
The California attorney general then sued, accusing the company of violating the state’s health and safety laws by failing to promptly control the leak and alert authorities.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti welcomed the agreement as a “good step forward, a comprehensive agreement that is not exhaustive, but one that gets the community what they deserve.”
A key component of the deal is $25 million for a long-term health study of the effects of the gas leak on residents, which officials said would be administered by public health officials and academics. Residents have long demanded a comprehensive assessment of the chemicals they were exposed to, but previous settlements related to the leak generated only a fraction of what officials say is needed and was criticized by leaders as wholly inadequate.
The gas company also agreed to pay $26.5 million to offset the damage from the release of planet-warming methane gas, which has many times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide. Under the mitigation program, the utility will provide loans to dairies to install methane digesters used to fuel heavy-duty trucks that otherwise would burn diesel, according to the state Air Resources Board.
Once the loans are repaid, the money will be directed to emissions-reduction projects in Southern California, including ones that benefit Porter Ranch residents.
The settlement will fund a variety of other projects, including:
* $3 million to develop a real-time air-monitoring network and a symptom- and incident-reporting system
* $5 million for electric school buses and mobile asthma clinics
* $7.1 million to install air filtration systems at public schools in heavily polluted “environmental justice” communities of L.A. County
* $5.2 million for lead paint abatement of homes near the closed Exide battery recycling plant in southeast L.A. County
In a news conference Wednesday, state and local officials emphasized that the deal resolves only public agencies’ claims against the utility over violations of state law.
“This does not resolve another crucial component that resulted from this incident, and that is the personal harm, and injury and damages that Angelenos suffered as a result of this leak,” Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra said.
That includes hundreds of civil lawsuits filed by residents and a determination of the root cause of the incident, both of which are ongoing.
The deal was met with criticism from some elected officials and residents who said it does too little to reduce dependence on the facility and routes settlement money to unrelated projects, including some far from the San Fernando Valley communities affected by the leak.
“Instead of improving the lives of residents and ratepayers impacted by the blowout, it would fund pet projects for the gas company hundreds of miles away,” said State Sen. Henry Stern, who proposed legislation prohibiting settlement funds from leaving the community for unrelated projects such as Central Valley dairy digesters.
In a statement, Bret Lane, president and chief operating officer for Southern California Gas said the company “is delivering on our commitment to the Governor and the people of California to fully mitigate the methane emissions from the leak at our Aliso Canyon facility” and that the dairy farm projects would “help California meet its ambitious climate goals.”
In 2016, SoCal Gas paid $4 million to settle separate litigation brought by local prosecutors, who accused the gas company of failing to properly notify authorities about the leak.
As part of that settlement, SoCal Gas agreed to install eight infrared methane leak-detection systems along the southern border of the Aliso Canyon gas field. It said it would install real-time pressure monitors at each storage well and hire six full-time employees to monitor those detection systems.
Last year, the gas company agreed to an $8.5-million settlement with the South Coast Air Quality Management District over violations during the leak — a deal that was criticized by Porter Ranch leaders and elected officials as hasty and insufficient. The settlement set aside $1 million for a health study, far less than the $5 million regulators had said was necessary for a meaningful analysis of how residents were affected by chemicals from the leak.
State air quality officials estimate the release of 109,000 metric tons of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, wiping out some of the pollution reductions from California’s climate change programs. The Air Resources Board has long said that the gas company would be on the hook to fund for projects that fully offset the leak’s damage to the climate, a process that will be formally established through the settlement.
Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer said a legally enforceable climate change mitigation plan was a crucial component of the deal because “at the early stages of this catastrophe, Southern California Gas was expressing reluctance to be legally bound to such a plan.”
A state appeals court judge last year ruled that Southern California Gas could resume operations at the Aliso Canyon facility.
City and county officials emphasized that the settlement should not be the end of changes stemming from the incident, which they hope will ultimately include the shutdown of the facility and its replacement with carbon-free renewable energy.
Garcetti said the leak “caused trauma to our residents and it caused trauma to our environment and it should fundamentally make us rethink our relationship with power production and the locating of facilities near our homes.”
12:40 p.m.: This article was updated with more details about how the settlement money will be distributed.
10:45 a.m.: This article was updated with comment from a news conference on the Aliso Canyon settlement.
This article was originally published at 9:50 a.m.
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