D. Martinez / SFVS

Thousands of San Fernando Valley residents impacted by the Porter Ranch gas leak filled the sanctuary of Shepherd of the Hills Church in Porter Ranch Wednesday, Feb. 2, to hear a a panel of attorneys, UCLA professors and public officials explain their legal rights.

The independent panel assembled by L.A. City Councilmember Mitch Englander, was described as having “no skin in the game.” Residents have been solicited by a flood of attorneys and were warned to be on the lookout for phony “disaster officials, insurance adjusters, water testing scams, and bogus charities.”

Englander acknowledged the massive crowd by telling them that he understood what they’ve been through and noted the 45,000 people and families who’ve been relocated.

He described the “rainbow plume of toxic gas” spreading across the Valley, which has been recorded by an infrared camera. Large numbers of residents continue to report smelling the gas.

Englander then referred to the gas leak at the Aliso Canyon facility as a “major disaster.”

Porter Ranch residents have also complained that although they’ve relocated and vacated their homes, their gas bills have dramatically increased and they’ve been charged for trash pick up.

Residents told the “San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol” they considered the “bill spiking” as an “insult to injury.” Although the Gas Company has denied a connection, they believe their increased bill is a direct result to the gas leak.

“It’s not a coincidence,” said a woman who asked not to be identified.  “I called the Gas Co. and they said my bill was increased because it was colder. But we haven’t even been living in our home. and we’re  expected to pay for the harm that they’ve caused to us?”

Business owners representing various companies that include realtors and a local car wash, spoke of the downturn of customers. 

“This has been nationwide news. Who will want to buy a house in Porter Ranch when their value has dropped? No mortgage company is going to want to lend money in this area,” said one realtor who only identified herself as “Holly.”

The owner of Classic Car Wash in Northridge said his business has dropped more than 60 percent since the gas leak was reported. He offered to give a free car wash to affected residents.

Residents not only from Porter Ranch, but from points throughout the Valley including Granada Hills, had a long list of health related concerns and fears about the long term impact.

Granada Hills resident, Gita Belinsky, told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol  that her community has been suffering the health effects of both the Porter Ranch gas leak and the toxins released from the Sunshine Canyon landfill, which has been an ongoing battle.

“I’m a parent of a student at Van Gogh Elementary School, and I’ve experienced not only the smell of the gas coming from Porter Ranch but the smell of trash and other toxins that we’ve been exposed to from Sunshine Canyon.”

Belinsky said the smell of gas is so strong at the school that some parents have taken their kids out of the school and relocated.

“I’m very concerned. We’ve been getting it from both directions and we’ve had to endure those strong smells permeating the air really strongly,” she said. “We’ve been getting it both ways, from two directions.”

Parents at the school have formed an environmental committee and have been discussing ways to take action. They have sent memos out to other parents urging them to call the AQMD anytime they smell gas from Porter Ranch, or from Sunshine Canyon.

Walker Foley, an organizer with Food & Water Watch, worked with Porter Ranch residents to circulate petitions to shut down Aliso Canyon.

“The concerns have evolved from week to week. Residents are reporting that their radon detectors are going off in their homes,” Foley said.

Residents say they want a complete testing of not only the air, but the soil and water. “What happens when people get very serious diseases years from now?” a resident asked.

Resident Kyoko Hibino said she has been feeling better since leaving her Porter Ranch home, but she like many is concerned about the long term affects of the gas leak.

Englander told residents that the Gas Company had indicated it would be able to cap the gas leak early this month, but have since indicated to media outlets that it could be at the end of the month. He said that once the leak is capped that doesn’t mean that all the problems are solved.

The crowd applauded when the council member announced that Los Angeles county prosecutors had filed “criminal charges” against Southern California Gas Co. for allegedly failing to immediately report the Porter Ranch gas leak to state authorities.

The company was charged with three counts of failing to report the release of hazardous materials from Oct. 23 to Oct. 26, and one count of discharging air contaminants, beginning Oct. 23 and continuing through today. The charges however are all misdemeanors.

If convicted, the company could be fined up to $25,000 a day for each day it failed to notify the state Office of Emergency Services about the leak, and could be fined up to $1,000 per day for air pollution violations.

Assemblyman Scott Wells told residents he would be introducing legislation to double the statue of limitations for filing health related claims. Wells said that he would be working with Assemblyman Mike Gatto to strip the constitutional protection for the utility company, “so that they will be held accountable for their actions.”

“My family has been impacted too,” California Secretary of state Alex Padilla told the crowd. Padilla, originally from Pacoima, had moved into the Porter Ranch area with his family over recent years.

Padilla said he has been especially concerned to hear that home insurance policies weren’t renewed for some residents, so he tracked down the state insurance commissioner to get answers.

“What happens here has ramifications across the country,” he said.

To contact the city council office of Mitch Englander and for general questions or concerns regarding the Aliso Canyon gas leak go to: www.cd12.org.  You can also call (818) 435-7707 or email AlisoCanyon @SoCalGas.com.