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City attorney demands faster relocation of residents near Porter Ranch gas leak

The Los Angeles city attorney’s office sought a court order Tuesday to move Porter Ranch residents into temporary housing more quickly to avoid fumes from a massive natural gas leak.

With 2,684 families of the northwest San Fernando Valley community awaiting relocation, the city wants a “special master” appointed to oversee the task, which is currently in the hands of Southern California Gas Co. The gas company owns the well in Aliso Canyon that has been leaking massive amounts of methane since Oct. 23.

The restraining order sought by City Atty. Mike Feuer would require gas company officials to relocate residents within 48 hours of their requests. A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday morning.

As of Tuesday, the gas company had paid to relocate and house 2,092 households, SoCalGas spokesman Michael Mizrahi said. The company is working with 17 relocation agencies in addition to government agencies, he said.

The gas company is having increasing difficulty finding alternative housing nearby because most of the available hotel and motel rooms and rental homes already have been snapped up by relocated Porter Ranch families.

The shortage is sending home rental prices as high as $8,500 a month as landlords, who prefer leases of a year or longer, seek compensation for renting properties for much shorter terms than the three to four months SoCalGas said it needs to cap the damaged well.

But the city believes the gas company can improve the speed of its response, particularly for people with disabilities who may be more sensitive to fumes that health officials say can lead to headaches, nausea and other short-term afflictions but pose no long-term, serious health risks.

Other customers are being moved from large homes into significantly smaller hotel quarters, said James P. Clark, chief deputy to Feuer.

“In some of those hotel rooms there are not enough beds for the people who are being moved,” Clark said.

“It's time Porter Ranch residents had direct and complete answers about all facets of this leak, including what caused it, how to stop it and what will be done to assure it never happens again,” he said. “They should also receive better, quicker and completely adequate relocation assistance.”

Attorney Rex Parris, who said he represents about 1,000 people in Porter Ranch and Chatsworth in a class-action lawsuit, said the speed of relocation isn’t the only issue.

“What the Los Angeles County and the Los Angeles city [governments] told the gas company to do is relocate these people, not to put people in the Four Seasons and say they’re relocated,” Parris said. “You can’t put a man, a wife and his kids in one room. It’s a gilded cage.”

Some Porter Ranch residents, however, believe the process has worked.

Samantha Sandoval, 20, and her family made the decision to leave their home after a severe nose bleed and blurry vision sent her to the emergency room in the middle of the night. It took the gas company about 12 hours to get the family of three, plus a boxer and a terrier mix, into a hotel room 25 miles away in Westlake Village.

“We feel pretty lucky,” Sandoval said. “It’s been disruptive but it’s not severe.”

Mizrahi said the gas company is “committed to best efforts to accommodate all residents in neighboring communities who need relocation, including people with disabilities and access and functional needs.”

While SoCalGas is offering free, temporary housing, many customers are pursuing accommodations through hotels and Airbnb on their own and will seek reimbursement from the gas company, he said.

The gas company had no comment on the city attorney’s request.

Symptoms that residents experience probably are not the result of the gas itself but of tertiary butyl mercaptan and tetrahydrothiophene, two odorants that are added to the natural gas so that a leak can be detected by smell, according to officials with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and independent experts.

The leaking well is about a mile from the nearest residential area but wind frequently carries the fumes into neighborhoods. Repeated attempts to cap the leak at the wellhead have failed.

Los Angeles Councilman Mitch Englander, who represents the Porter Ranch community, applauded the city attorney’s filing.

“What should be a very special time of year has turned into a nightmare for this community,” Englander said.

Los Angeles school officials decided last week that students and staff at two Porter Ranch schools would temporarily relocate to avoid the fumes. The Porter Ranch Community School will hold classes at Northridge Middle School after the winter recess. Lane Charter Elementary will relocate to Sunny Brae Avenue Elementary in Winnetka.

School district officials also authorized their legal staff to sue the gas company to recoup any expenses related to problems created by the leak.

Earlier this month, the city attorney sued SoCalGas, alleging that the utility failed to prevent the leak and then exacerbated “the effects of that failure by allowing the acute odor and health problems faced by the community to persist for more than one month, to say nothing about the indefinite time it will persist into the future,” according to court papers.

Gas officials could be deposed in that case as soon as Jan. 7, according to the city attorney. Among the city’s key questions are: what caused the leak, how much gas has been released and how effective are the air filtration systems made available by the gas company.

On Monday, Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich asked that unincorporated county territory near Aliso Canyon not be annexed to Los Angeles for residential development until a thorough investigation of the leak is completed.

For more news on California, follow @TheCityMaven

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

7:45 p.m.: This article was updated with additional reaction.

12:56 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional details. 

This article was originally published at 12:40 p.m. 

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