LOS ANGELES (CNS) — Southern California Gas Co. has reached a $4 million settlement to resolve criminal charges accusing the utility of failing to immediately report the massive gas leak at the Aliso Canyon storage facility near Porter Ranch, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office announced on Tuesday, Sept. 13.
The company pleaded no contest to one misdemeanor count of failing to immediately report the gas leak, which began last Oct. 23, and wasn’t capped until mid-February, to the state Office of Emergency Services and the local Certified Unified Program Agency.
Three other misdemeanor counts filed against the company in February are expected to be dismissed at sentencing Nov. 29, if the terms of the settlement are completed, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
“This agreement ensures that Southern California Gas Co. is held accountable for its criminal actions for failing to immediate report the leak,” District Attorney Jackie Lacey said.
“Our office has helped bring the Aliso Canyon facility into compliance, keeping in mind that public safety is of the utmost importance,” she 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 agreement requires the company to install and maintain an infrared methane monitoring system at the Aliso Canyon site that will cost between $1.2 million and $1.5 million, and to retain an outside company to test and certify that the monitoring system and real-time pressure monitors to be placed at each gas well are working properly.
Under the agreement, a half-dozen full-time employees will be hired to operate and maintain the new leak detection systems 24 hours a day at a cost for about $2.25 million over the next three years.
The agreement also calls for the company to revise and adopt new reporting policies for actual and threatened releases of hazardous materials to the appropriate agencies, and mandates training courses on proper notification procedures for all of the utility’s employees who work at natural gas storage facilities within Los Angeles County.
SoCalGas will also pay $307,500 in fine and penalty assessments, along with more than $246,000 for the cost of the investigation and emergency response by the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Health and Hazardous Materials Division.
The utility is on notice that it could face a more serious criminal
penalty in the future if the same unlawful conduct occurs, according to the District Attorney’s Office, which said the settlement will not interfere with pending civil actions against the company.
The company issued a statement saying the 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. These are in addition to other enhancements that have already been instituted by the company.”
The utility’s statement says the Aliso Canyon storage facility “is critical to the reliability of natural gas and electricity services in Southern California. We are diligently working with state officials to complete a comprehensive safety review of the facility and are committed to providing safe and reliable energy to the millions of Californians who rely on us each day.”
The Aliso Canyon gas leak spewed more than 100,000 tons of methane into the air, making it the largest methane leak in U.S. history, according to a study released in February by UC Davis, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and others.
The study — published in the journal Science — found that the daily amount of methane leaked between Oct. 23 and Feb. 11 was enough to fill a balloon the size of the Rose Bowl.
According to the study, at the peak of the leak, the amount of methane pouring into the air from the damaged pipe was double the rate of methane emissions from the entire Los Angeles basin, and it was the largest “human-caused point source of methane in the United States,” doubling the methane released by an Alabama coal mine.
The methane released is roughly the equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions from more than 500,000 passenger cars, the study found, dramatically impacting the state’s ability to meet its emission targets for the year.
Health concerns stemming from the gas leak prompted thousands of residents to move out of the area into temporary housing at the expense of the Gas Co. Following an extensive effort to clean Porter Ranch-area homes, the bulk of displaced residents returned in June.
County health officials received hundreds of complaints from Porter Ranch residents who returned to their homes and reported more health problems, including nausea, stomach aches and respiratory irritation.