A. Garcia / SFVS

Matt Pakucko, president and co-founder of Save Porter Ranch, outside the Aliso Canyon facility.

The settlement approved this week that requires the Southern California Gas Company pay out nearly $120 million to settle claims from various government agencies for the damage caused by the 2015 Aliso Canyon gas leak has done nothing but create more concerns from Porter Ranch residents regarding potential long-term health issues caused by the leak, and further erode public confidence that the Gas Company would be penalized further for future discoveries of culpability.

Craig Galanti of the Aliso Canyon Community Action Committee (ACCAC) said the agencies involved in the settlement “should have done a better job” of holding that polluter accountable for the cleanup. “The [facility] harms the people that live around it. The money should go toward improving the area caused by this damage and mitigating it from ever happening again.”

In fact, a “settlement” should have never been considered, much less signed off on, unless the facility had permanently ceased operating, insists Matt Pakucko, president and co-founder of the community group Save Porter Ranch.

“That is still our main focus, to shut that place down,” Pakucko said.

He was not alone in voicing frustration.

“There is no possible way for a facility like this to co-exist with humans in a safe manner. It’s just not possible,” said Andrew Krowne, another member of the ACCAC which, when the settlement was announced, stated the decision would “direct the vast majority of the damages away from the impacted communities of the San Fernando, Simi and Santa Clarita Valleys and away from those directly sickened” by the environmental disaster.

The gas leak, first discovered on Oct. 23, 2015 and not completely plugged by SoCalGas until Feb. 18, 2016, sent more that 100,000 tonnes of gas and chemicals into the atmosphere, including methane and ethane, around Porter Ranch, the San Fernando Valley and other locations in Los Angeles county. It is considered the largest leak of its kind in US history.

Residents of Porter Ranch initially complained of headaches, nausea, and nosebleeds, and many were evacuated from their homes until the leak was plugged. There are ongoing studies to try and identify other illnesses  — such as cancer — directly caused by the leak.

The settlement that was negotiated last August and approved by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Carolyn Kuhl on Monday, Feb. 25, ordered SoCalGas to “reimburse city, county and state governments for costs associated with their response to the leak; establish a program with the California Air Resources Board to mitigate the methane emissions from the leak; and fund local environmental benefit projects to be administered by the government parties.”

SoCalGas issued a statement saying it was “pleased” to resolve the litigation.

The settlement resolved claims against the Gas Company by the city and county of Los Angeles, as well as the state Attorney General’s Office and the California Air Resources Board. It stops SoCalGas from passing along the litigation costs to its ratepayers. But it did not resolve a still-pending class-action lawsuit involving thousands of residents.

It did leave a bitter taste for those still feeling the impact from the leak and its ensuing fallout. 

“The biggest concern of the settlement; so many agendas had their finger in the pie, to try and extract penalties [from] SoCalGas, that the minority of the money is being spent locally on the people who were impacted,” Galanti said. “We were the victims….we’re very frustrated by that.”

“The problem with the settlement is, the county had the best lawsuit against (SoCalGas); they had a whole list of good reasons to keep that facility shut. But unfortunately, the county completely caved,”  Pakucko said. “But we’re still going forward.”

How to do that is the question facing both advocacy groups and others like them.

Pakucko said Save Porter Ranch wants to see officials from both SoCalGas and the state Public Utilities Commission brought before a state senate oversight committee and made to directly answer questions as to why the leak was allowed to happen and why the facility can’t be shuttered.

In addition, Pakucko said, “(Gov.) Gavin Newsom, before he was elected, pledged to shut that facility down. So he needs now to step up.”

Both groups agreed that health concerns — of which $25 million of the settlement are for long-term studies — should be spent by some agency other than the county Department of Public Health, which neither group expressed any confidence. The spokesmen said that support should go to Porter Ranch physician Dr. Jeffrey Nordella, who has been taking surveys, testing residents and compiling data as part of the independent Aliso Canyon Medical Surveillance Study for more than a year.

“The personal injury stuff is uncovering a whole lot of issues with [SoCalGas] and that facility. Of course a lot of that will come out slowly, over time,” Pakucko said. “Nordella’s study is for anyone who wants to take part and a lot of people already have.

“His practice was based here, he saw patients here at Ground Zero,” Krowne said of Nordella. “He was, quite frankly, the first and only medical professional to raise the alarm that something was even going on here. And he’s been running the study now through multiple phases.”

A bigger problem, Krowne said, is public apathy or fatigue from the continuing twists and turns in the leak story.

“It’s one of the tools the Gas company has employed. They’ve been downplaying what has occurred here literally since Day One — they don’t want you to know we’re living through the worst gas and chemical disaster because that would freak people out. But an exposure of this magnitude — and we’re talking of up to 1.5 million people — from this combination of chemicals in this duration, and all the leaking, well, there has never been a study of a population exposed to this many chemicals.

“We know these are toxic chemicals…now mix in and add in  what does it do to the human body. But that has been downplayed. The fact remains that as long as this facility exists, people’s health is in danger. And people need to really understand that.”

It’s enough to make Pakucko want to move, even though he loves Porter Ranch. But he bristles at those who expect him to simply up and leave.

“People say ‘why don’t you just move?’ Try having this thrown into your life like this and just move,” he said. “It’s not like that. I wish. I would have been one of the first out of here when that place blew up because we knew what the problem was.”

No matter what the court says, or how SoCalGas tries to portray the settlement, nothing is settled, Galanti said.

“This is really just the beginning,” he said. “There’s a latency between exposure and disease. This is really the beginning and the community should pay very specific attention.”

City News Service contributed to this story.

If you are interested in contacting Save Porter Ranch for more information, visit https://www.saveporterranch.com/

If you are interested in contacting the ACCAC for more information, you can send an email to alisocanyoncac@gmail.com

If you have interest in  participating in the Aliso Canyon Medical Surveillance Study, please visit www.alisocanyonmss.com