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Assemblyman Mike Gatto plans hearings on Porter Ranch gas leak

A member of the state Assembly from Southern California plans to hold a hearing in January on Southern California Gas Co.’s response to a gas leak in Aliso Canyon that has forced the evacuation of thousands of Porter Ranch residents.

Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Glendale) was named chairman of the Utilities and Commerce Committee on Tuesday. He’s planning to hold a hearing next month in or near Porter Ranch that would give residents an opportunity to question officials with the gas company and state regulatory agencies.

“I think the Legislature, and definitely this committee, is the most appropriate entity to open an inquiry into this. We have the power to subpoena records. We can put witnesses under oath,” Gatto said.

“We want to give them a forum and an opportunity to provide their ideas and ask questions they want to ask.”

In the meantime, thousands of Porter Ranch residents face the continued challenge of relocating their families thanks to the overwhelming odors coming from the leak.

Tensions came to a head last week when Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer went to court to force the firm to speed up relocation requests.

Under a court order signed Thursday, the two sides agreed to a process that allows residents to speak with a relocation specialist if they feel their case is lingering. If the problem is not solved, customers can then seek mediation from a retired judge, who will be assigned to the case within one business day.

If the problem persists, the city attorney's office will take the issue to court, said Jim Clark, chief deputy to the city attorney.

“We wanted to light a fire under them,” Clark said. “We think we did.”

Since the leak began Oct. 23, there have been 6,576 relocation requests from customers, though that number may include duplicate calls, said SoCal Gas spokesman Michael Mizrahi. A total of 2,258 people have been placed in temporary housing and another 3,168 are in the placement process.

“We don't want anybody to have to stay in their house longer than they want to,” Mizrahi said.

But residents and their attorneys have complained of delays and inadequate accommodations, including temporary units that don't have enough beds for all family members.

Porter Ranch resident Sue Rosen has been to three hotels so far, from Newport Beach to downtown Los Angeles to Woodland Hills. She, her husband, their 20-year-old son and two dogs are willing to go as far as San Diego to find a hotel to accommodate them.

“I’m tired of our family being separated and we are,” she said, noting that one family member has had to remain in their home with the pets.

At the Marriott in Woodland Hills, residents are swapping stories about their experiences with the gas company, when they think the leak will be repaired and whether there will be long-term health consequences.

“At the hotel, everybody’s talking and nobody knows what they’re talking about,” she said.

When the city attorney's office first submitted its motion for a temporary restraining order last week, it included declarations from 45 residents who had problems moving out of their homes. The city attorney’s office believes those cases were resolved as a result of the court's action, Clark said.

“I don’t know why they couldn’t move faster and why it takes the city attorney to go in and do that,” said attorney Brian Panish, who represents about 1,000 residents as part of a class-action lawsuit against the gas company. “It’s just increases the stress and anxiety for everyone.”

In many cases, Porter Ranch residents who want to escape the gas leak's smell, which they say causes headaches, nose bleeds and nausea, are first housed in a hotel or extended-stay residence. From there, they're moved to corporate housing.

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SoCal Gas is paying as much as $300 a night for the temporary stays. Residents who have to live without a full kitchen receive an additional $45 a day (a smaller per diem is provided for children and teenagers). Porter Ranch residents can also be reimbursed for mileage, since some are moving as far as 25 miles away from their homes and schools.

Families that seek out their own housing will be reimbursed by the gas company.

Gas crews are working around the clock to drill a relief well that will intercept the leak more than 8,000 feet below ground. The work is not expected to be completed until February or March.

alice.walton@latimes.com

Twitter: @TheCityMaven

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