LOS ANGELES (CNS) — Lawyers for a group of residents suing Southern California Gas Co. over the massive gas leak at the Aliso Canyon storage facility near Porter Ranch filed court papers Tuesday, Oct. 18, asking that the utility’s plea to a misdemeanor charge be set aside.
“None of the victims of the defendant’s criminal acts were consulted about the plea agreement in advance. The settlement was presented to the court with no notice to, or input from, any of the victims,” attorneys R. Rex Parris, Patricia K. Oliver, Brian Panish and Robert Glassman wrote in the 16-page filing. “Neither the plea agreement, nor the court, so much as mentioned victim restitution as opposed to a restitution fine during the plea.”
Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey “has not had a chance to review their filing,” according to spokeswoman Jane Robison. “Therefore, we have no comment at this time.”
Chris Gilbride, spokesman for SoCalGas, said company officials “have not been served the petition, but will respond through the appropriate channels.”
Southern California Gas Co. pleaded no contest Sept. 13 to a 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 to be dismissed at sentencing Nov. 29, if the terms of the settlement are completed.
“This plea agreement bears every indication of an attempt by defendant to cheat their victims out of their constitutional right to restitution,” the attorneys allege in the court filing, saying the issue has “caused the victims great concern and torment.”
The filing seeks to have what the residents’ attorneys call a “silent plea” — with no mention of restitution to the homeowners — withdrawn and “their right to full restitution be explicitly expressed by the court.”
The attorneys argue that the failure to take a waiver that would allow residents to seek restitution in connection with one of the other misdemeanor counts — discharging air contaminants — “requires withdrawal of the plea.”
“The victims’ attorneys are prepared to work with the probation department, and the LADA, to prepare a comprehensive analysis of the economic losses suffered by thousands of our citizens and neighbors in this disaster,” the attorneys wrote.
“… Victims of the Porter Ranch gas blowout, therefore, request a hearing to address their rights to restitution. It is inexplicable why the victims were kept in the dark about the plea agreement. This is not a mere technicality — it is a constitutional right that is to be held inviolable. Yet, with this defendant, it was overlooked.”
The $4 million settlement announced last month by the District Attorney’s Office requires SoCalGas 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 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.
A study released in February by UC Davis and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — 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.
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.