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L.A. County files criminal charges over Porter Ranch gas leak

Southern California Gas Co. on Tuesday was charged with failing to immediately notify state authorities about the natural gas leak in Aliso Canyon.

L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey filed four misdemeanor criminal charges against the gas company, accusing it of releasing air contaminants and neglecting to report the release of hazardous materials until three days after the leak began Oct. 23.

"We will do everything we can as prosecutors to help ensure that the Aliso Canyon facility is brought into compliance. I believe we can best serve our community using the sanctions available through a criminal conviction to prevent similar public health threats in the future," Lacey said in a statement.

The charges could result in a maximum fine of $25,000 a day for each day the leak went unreported, and $1,000 a day for each day the well has polluted the air. An arraignment is scheduled for Feb. 17 in Santa Clarita.

"We have just been notified of this filing and we are still reviewing it,” said Kristine Lloyd, a spokeswoman for the utility.  “We have been working with regulatory agencies to mitigate the odors associated with the natural gas leak and to abate the gas leak as quickly as safety allows. We will defend ourselves vigorously through the judicial process."

The leaking well has released about 80,000 metric tons of methane, and the amount continues to grow. Noxious fumes have driven residents out of more than 5,000 homes in nearby Porter Ranch and surrounding communities, the utility has said. Residents have complained of headaches, nosebleeds and nausea, which are short-term symptoms associated with the smell in the methane.

The criminal charges came hours after state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris joined those suing the gas company, saying the litigation was necessary to hold the utility accountable.

The attorney general’s action amends a civil suit filed in December by Los Angeles city and county officials in Superior Court. The revised joint complaint accuses the gas company of violating health and safety codes, public nuisance laws and hazardous materials reporting requirements, as well as engaging in unfair business practices. The suit seeks civil penalties, restitution and injunctions to enforce regulations.

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Harris' joining in the litigation brings to 11 the number of local, state and federal agencies now either investigating or suing the gas company. Her office is the only one that can press some claims, such as alleging statewide harm through greenhouse gas emissions.

"Quite frankly, it's not litigation overkill at all," said Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell  Englander, who represents communities affected by the leak. "The damage the gas has caused to residents, the environment, the economy, is unprecedented."

Though the amount of gas escaping from the company's Aliso Canyon underground storage field has fallen since peaking in late November, the utility does not expect to be able to attempt to stop the leak until late this month.

The lawsuit includes yet-unnamed corporate officers of the gas company who were in a position of responsibility to either prevent, or immediately correct, the leak. Southern California Gas is owned by Sempra Energy, a San Diego-based corporation whose board of directors includes Kathleen Brown, the sister of Gov. Jerry Brown.

In a press release, the attorney general's office said it was best suited to coordinate multiple agency claims while seeking to force the gas company to address the environmental effects of such a large release of methane. The gas has a short lifespan in the atmosphere but has a powerful greenhouse effect in trapping the Earth's heat radiation.

"Against the backdrop of California's ongoing efforts to reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions generally, this leak is a monumental environmental disaster," the lawsuit contends.

Harris' office stated the attorney general "is already serving a crucial coordinating role" with state, federal and local agencies. Agency staff said that effort included mapping out what potential enforcement actions those agencies can take against the gas company.

The degree of behind-the-scenes coordination and lack of public involvement in the leak investigation disturbs some consumer advocates.

"This is a coup of government agencies working in secrecy, to figure out how they don't step on each others' toes," said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, a California nonprofit organization frequently involved in insurance and utility regulation. "The public needs to be part of this process. There are too many political alliances and allegiances here."

paige.stjohn@latimes.com

For more California news, follow me at @paigestjohn on Twitter

alice.walton@latimes.com

Times staff writer Sarah D. Wire in Washington contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

7:30 p.m.: This post has been updated to report on L.A. County filing criminal charges against Southern California Gas Co. over the Aliso Canyon leak.

11:30 a.m.: This post was updated to add further details of the litigation and comments.

This post was originally published at 11 a.m.

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