California’s biggest natural-gas utility was slapped with a $3.3-million fine on Friday, with state regulators accusing the company of putting its financial bottom line ahead of public safety by refusing to fully investigate a 2017 explosion that injured one person.
The California Public Utilities Commission said Southern California Gas Co. has failed to test a section of pipeline that was damaged in the Jan. 20, 2017, explosion in Ontario, Calif., to help determine the cause of the explosion. After initially agreeing to examine the pipeline, SoCalGas told commission staff last month that it was canceling the test until a lawsuit stemming from the explosion is resolved, the state agency said Friday.
In a citation notice, commission staff said the gas company’s decision to cancel the test was “irresponsible to the public safety and unacceptable” and “places fear of civil damages ahead of public safety.”
“Such actions are unbecoming of the largest [natural gas] distribution operator in the country,” the agency wrote.
A SoCalGas spokeswoman said the company’s actions after the explosion “were in compliance with applicable state and federal regulations.” Company representatives said the testing requested by the Public Utilities Commission would destroy the damaged pipeline section, which is evidence in a lawsuit.
“SoCalGas has taken appropriate steps to investigate the cause of the incident, completed comprehensive repairs to minimize the possibility of recurrence, and has cooperated with the CPUC throughout the investigation,” spokeswoman Christine Detz said in an email.
The company declined to say whether it will appeal the fine.
SoCalGas provides natural gas for home heating and other uses to nearly 22 million people across Southern and Central California. The utility is owned by San Diego-based Sempra Energy, whose other local subsidiary is San Diego Gas & Electric, the gas and power provider for San Diego County and part of Orange County.
Sempra’s safety record has faced heightened scrutiny since October 2015, when a well at the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility operated by SoCalGas sprang a leak, spewing planet-warming methane gas and other toxic air pollutants for nearly four months. Residents in the nearby Los Angeles neighborhood of Porter Ranch said they suffered from nausea, headaches and nosebleeds. The gas company agreed to pay $119.5 million to settle lawsuits brought by state and local agencies, although lawsuits filed by nearby residents are still pending.
The Public Utilities Commission said the 2017 explosion was caused by a gas leak and affected a residential neighborhood in Ontario, causing “severe damages to nearby garages and injury to one person.”
Commission staff said they chose to fine SoCalGas the maximum penalty of $50,000 a day for each of three violations of state regulations, dating to Jan. 10, when the company was supposed to test its damaged pipeline section. The violations are ongoing as long as SoCalGas refuses to conduct that test, and the company could face additional fines up to a maximum of $8 million, commission staff said.