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Lawmaker seeks closure of older Aliso Canyon gas wells until they're inspected

Older natural gas wells operated by Southern California Gas Co. at Aliso Canyon should be shut down until state officials and an outside agency can verify that they do not pose a risk to public health, a state senator said Monday.

State Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) called for inspections in response to a continuing and massive natural gas leak that was first reported near Porter Ranch on Oct. 23.

Of Aliso Canyon’s 111 gas storage wells, 48 were drilled before 1953, according to Pavley’s office. The leaking well, known as SS-25, was installed in 1953 as an oil well and later converted to a natural gas storage well in 1973, the gas company said.

Under one of three bills she is introducing related to the leak, those older wells would be shut down until an outside expert and the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, the California Public Utilities Commission and the California Energy Commission determine they pose no risk to public health or safety.

A second bill would designate the state Office of Emergency Services as the lead agency on any future leaks and require the gas company to pay for the leak’s damages with its profits, not ratepayer funds. The utility has said its insurance will cover more than $1 billion in costs.

A third bill would require the inspection of all natural gas storage facilities statewide in the next year and then at least once annually thereafter.

Those bills mirror the emergency proclamation Gov. Jerry Brown issued last week. In his order, the governor asked state agencies to assess the long-term viability of the state’s natural gas facilities. It also continued the prohibition against injecting any gas into the Aliso Canyon site until third-party experts can determine the safety of the storage wells.

“SoCal Gas appreciates the legislators’ interest in the topic and looks forward to participating in the public discussion,” said Anne Silva, a spokeswoman for the utility. “As we have since this incident began, SoCal Gas stands willing and ready to cooperate with the governor’s office, all state and local officials, and regulatory agencies.”

The first priority is to stop the leak, Pavley said. Once that is done, the focus should be on returning people to their homes and only after that can they look at closing down the facility, which some neighbors have called for.

She noted, however, that 21 million people in Southern California rely on the Aliso Canyon site for energy.

Porter Ranch is home to 30,000 people, but the Aliso Canyon complex, which is a mile from the nearest home, was operating long before the upscale community was allowed to grow closer to the operation.

State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) and Pavley on Monday questioned whether the homes should have been built so close to the storage wells.

“These wells have been in here since Porter Ranch was in fact created back in the day,” De Leon said. “Therefore, I think we have to look at the local level to find out exactly how the permitting process was conducted and should Porter Ranch have been created back in the day?”

The leak has forced thousands of Porter Ranch households to relocate temporarily until the leak is plugged, which won't be for at least six more weeks.

Acting on reports that some landlords sharply increased rents on these families, City Atty. Mike Feuer said Monday that his office is working with the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs to investigate allegations of price gouging.

Under the governor’s emergency declaration, landlords and businesses cannot increase their prices more than 10% over what the goods sold for before the emergency. Doing so could result in a $10,000 fine or a one-year jail sentence.

Officials with the Department of Consumer and Business Affairs are expected to update the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, according to a spokesman for Supervisor Mike Antonovich.

The city attorney's office filed a civil lawsuit against the gas company over the gas leak last month. On Monday, attorneys for Los Angeles County also signed onto the case.

alice.walton@latimes.com

Twitter: @TheCityMaven

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

6:52 p.m.: This story was updated with additional information.

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