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Company Responsible for Huge Los Angeles Methane Leak Hit With Criminal Charges

As a state official says the Los Angeles-area gas leak could be plugged as early as next week, the Southern California Gas Company faces a growing number of state and county lawsuits.
Photo by Irfan Khan/EPA

California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey filed charges this week against the company responsible for a three-month-long natural gas leak, as a state official said a relief well might be completed as early as next week.

And the company, Southern California Gas Company (SoCal Gas), faces it's first wrongful death suit, with a family alleging their ill mother died from complications brought about by the leak.


Since the company's well began spewing massive amounts of methane last October, locals from the Porter Ranch community on the outskirts of Los Angeles have complained of nosebleeds, nausea, and headaches and thousands of residents have relocated at company cost.

The attorney general's office alleges that the company broke state health and safety laws by failing to quickly report the leak to authorities and contain the methane emissions. The suit also cites the impact of the leak on state efforts to combat climate change, as methane is twenty-five times more efficient at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide over a hundred years.

The Environmental Defense Fund estimates over 92,000 metric tons of methane so far, which represents 35 percent of the total annual methane emissions from the state's oil and gas sector.

"The impact of this unprecedented gas leak is devastating to families in our state, our environment, and our efforts to combat global warming. SoCal Gas must be held accountable," Harris said in a statement.

Related: California Issues State of Emergency for Massive Natural Gas Leak

The Los Angeles County District Attorney's office charged the company with four misdemeanors — the first criminal charges against the company.

"When something like this happens, the public is entitled to be warned about it," Lacey said.

The company should have informed the state's Office of Emergency Management, she added.


"They delayed for three days doing that," she said. "In the meantime, this leak was just spewing out."

Mitchell Englander, a member of the Los Angeles city council member who represents the district closest to the leaking well, said that the disaster has forced about 4,500 families — or about 15,000 people — to relocate. Two schools have closed and businesses have been hit with "dramatic loses," he said, calling the leak an "invisible tsunami."

"It's been about 100 days now," Englander said. "This plume of potentially toxic chemicals has come into this community on a daily basis."

Englander applauded the state's legal action and welcomed the criminal charges brought by the LA county district attorney, although he said he would have preferred felony rather than misdemeanor charges.

The family of a 79-year-old woman who had lung cancer also filed suit this week, alleging that the leak exacerbated her poor health. The woman, Zelda Rothman, died January 25.

"Southern California Gas Company's decision to operate its inherently dangerous gas storage operation next to 30,000 residents of Porter Ranch without taking all reasonable steps necessary to prevent catastrophic gas leaks is unconscionable," said Scott Glovsky, an attorney representing the family, according to the Los Angeles Daily News. "Its decision has not only damaged the health and property values of thousands of Porter Ranch residents, it has hastened the death of Zelda Rothman."


Related: This Gas Is Worse for the Climate Than Carbon Dioxide — And It's Leaking All Over the Place

Stephanie Donovan, senior communications manager for SoCal Gas, said the company was working with state agencies to plug the leak as quickly as possible.

"We will defend ourselves vigorously through the judicial process regarding these lawsuits," she said.

California state official Wade Crowfoot said yesterday that if all goes well, the relief well the company is drilling could intersect with the leaking well as soon as Monday, the Los Angeles Times reported. Even if that happens, it would still take at least five days to seal the well.

Ilissa Ocko, a climate scientist with EDF, the Aliso Canyon well was emitting 130,000 pounds of methane every hour at its peak, she said — the equivalent of the emissions generated by seven million cars. The leak flow has declined since then, she said, and is now around 45,000 pounds every hour.

"We're just literally watching this methane go up into the atmosphere, and interact with the energy balance, and warm the earth," she said. "And there's nothing we can do but just sit and watch it happen."

Follow Rob Verger on Twitter: @robverger