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Porter Ranch residents displaced by gas leak have one more week to return home

Porter Ranch residents will have another week to return home as they transition out of temporary housing because of the gas leak in Aliso Canyon.

Attorneys for Los Angeles County and Southern California Gas Co. agreed to extend the deadline to next Friday after a court hearing.

The county had taken the utility to court to try to force it to give residents another two months in temporary housing, paid for by the gas company. But a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge denied the request, opening the way for an agreement between the two sides.

The relocation period was initially set to end 48 hours after the gas leak was determined to be sealed, which occurred Feb. 18. It was extended to eight days under an agreement between the gas company and city officials, and extended by another 22 days under a court order last month.

County attorneys on Friday sought an extension to May 15, or at least for another month, saying that time was needed for the county Department of Public Health to work out protocols and do testing inside some of the homes in the area.

Air tests outside the homes have found chemical levels are back to normal, but some residents who have returned home report continuing health effects similar to the ones that caused them to leave while the leak was in progress. Those include headaches, nausea and nosebleeds.

Deborah J. Fox, an attorney representing the county, told the judge that the situation remains "far from normal."

"When the leak stopped, the nuisance didn't stop," she said. The residents "should not be forced to move home before the nuisance is abated," she said.

Attorneys representing the gas company argued that there has been no proof that the air inside of homes was unsafe.

"The law tells us if there's extraordinary relief that's required, there are extraordinary levels of proof needed," Jim Dragna, an attorney for the gas company, told the judge.

Judge Emilie H. Elias said residents who do not want to move home could pursue their own lawsuits against the company, but said there was not enough evidence to continue a blanket order.

"Right now, in front of me, I have absolutely no evidence to say that these houses are not safe," she said.

The county public health department has not yet begun testing the air inside of homes, but other researchers have.

The gas company hired a contractor, Geosyntec Consultants Inc., to test air inside the homes for methane and mercaptans. The mercaptans, additives that give natural gas its distinctive odor, are believed to be responsible for many of the health effects people experienced.

The tests found normal levels of methane and did not detect mercaptans, the company said Friday.

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Tony Bell, a spokesman for county Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, said public health officials want to test for other chemicals as well.

Separately, Fox said a UCLA professor has done analysis of the interior of some of the homes, but those results were not entered in the court record.

About 2,600 households are still living in hotel rooms, costing Southern California Gas $1.4 million to $1.8 million a day, Dragna said.

Jim Frantz, an attorney representing a group of residents who are suing the utility, said after the hearing that he was pleased that they would at least have another week to prepare to move home.

The judge left the door open for the parties to file for another extension if they get new information about conditions in the homes. It was not immediately clear if the county would do so.

Twitter: @sewella

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