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L.A. city attorney sues SoCal Gas over gas leak affecting Porter Ranch

Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer announced Monday he was suing Southern California Gas Co. over how it has handled a natural gas leak that has sent sickening fumes into the Porter Ranch area, spurring hundreds of families to leave their homes.

The lawsuit alleges that the company failed to immediately report the leaking well at its Aliso Canyon facility and was not properly prepared to stop it, resulting in a “public nuisance” from foul odors that caused nausea, headaches and nosebleeds and made large areas of Porter Ranch “unlivable.” The leak has lasted for more than a month.

Gas leak: In the Dec. 8 California section, an article about Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer's lawsuit against Southern California Gas Co. over a Porter Ranch area leak said that the state Air Resources Board had reported that the leak was releasing roughly 50,000 kilograms of methane per hour —an amount Feuer likened to 200,000 cars running for a year. Feuer was referring to the cumulative emissions since the leak was discovered in October.

The suit also argues that the amount of methane released by the leak will worsen climate change and its toll on Los Angeles and its residents. The California Air Resources Board recently reported that the leak is releasing roughly 50,000 kilograms of methane per hour — an amount that Feuer likened to 200,000 cars running for a year.

“No community should have to endure what the residents of Porter Ranch have suffered from the Gas Co.'s continued failure to stop that leak,” Feuer told reporters at a news conference also attended by Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Councilman Mitch Englander, who represents the Porter Ranch area.

The leak was first detected Oct. 23 and is expected to take months more to repair, according to the company. In response to a request for comment on the lawsuit, SoCalGas spokesman Javier Mendoza said the company had taken immediate steps to address the leak and inform regulatory agencies.

“We understand the leak has created concerns, heightened awareness and public urgency,” Mendoza said. “SoCalGas has the same urgency, and our highest priority is to safely stop the leak as quickly as safety will allow, support the affected customers and reduce the amount of natural gas emitting into the environment during this unfortunate situation.”

Mendoza added that SoCalGas does not believe it is possible at this time to accurately measure how much gas has leaked, and he called any estimates “premature and speculative.”

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Feuer said the lawsuit, which he filed in Superior Court on behalf of the people of California, seeks to require steps to fix the problems that can be enforced in court, including measures to prevent similar incidents in the future. It also seeks to penalize the company, but the total amount of those possible fines will depend on how many violations are found and how long they persist, according to Feuer's office.

In the lawsuit, Feuer claims that much of the equipment SoCalGas needed to try to stop the leak was near the Gulf of Mexico and took days to arrive. In addition, the city attorney alleges the company was slow to start building a relief well, only beginning that process more than a month after SoCalGas says the leak was discovered.

“The incredible duration of this crisis should have been avoided” and would have if SoCalGas had properly planned for such an event, the lawsuit says. It accuses the company of using “unfair and unlawful business practices” that allowed the leak and slowed its repair.

County health officials say that most of the gas leaking into neighborhoods is methane, which “does not pose a significant health risk” at existing levels. But the leak is also emitting mercaptans —additives with a foul smell that are meant to help detect leaks — which can cause temporary symptoms such as nausea, dizziness and nosebleed.

Public health officials have also warned that natural gas contains small amounts of other chemicals such as benzene, a known carcinogen. Such “trace levels” typically cause little risk after a brief exposure but could cause lasting health effects the longer that the leak remains unfixed, they said in a recent report.

Air quality officials, who have received more than 1,300 complaints about the foul smell, recently cited SoCalGas for creating a “public nuisance.”

Under orders from the county health department, the company has been paying to temporarily relocate hundreds of households affected by the odors.

The leak has also spurred a lawsuit from residents and the local advocacy group Save Porter Ranch, which alleges that SoCalGas and a state regulatory agency were negligent. Matt Pakucko, president and cofounder of Save Porter Ranch, said he thought Feuer could have demanded much more in his lawsuit.

“To keep this from happening again, shut the place down,” Pakucko said.

SoCalGas says it has received more than 2,000 requests for relocation and has already found temporary accommodations for more than 700 households.

Mendoza said the company is launching a website and resource center for residents, has created a claims process for those who feel they have been harmed and will soon provide in-home air filtration and weather-stripping “to further reduce residents' exposure to the odor.”

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


4:25 p.m: The story was updated to include comment from SoCal Gas. 

This article was first published at 1:50 p.m.