By Carey Wedler
The Porter Ranch gas leak has been billowing methane and other toxins into the suburban community north of Los Angeles since October of last year, sickening residents and forcing thousands of evacuations. Though emissions are now reportedly lower than they were at the height of the leak, the Aliso Canyon facility’s mishap has been deemed the worst in California’s history. Countless bureaucracies are involved in handling the ongoing disaster, but resolutions have been few and far between.
Last week, however, local headlines seemed to herald good news: SoCal Gas, the utility that owns and operates the leaking Aliso Canyon facility, would face criminal charges. The Los Angeles Times reported, “L.A. County files criminal charges over Porter Ranch Gas Leak.” A Los Angeles Daily News headline read, “DA files criminal charges against SoCal Gas over Porter Ranch leak as legal challenges mount.” While both assertions are true, the term“criminal charges” tends to imply harsh, aggressive prosecution.
In reality, the criminal charges filed against SoCal Gas amount to four misdemeanors. No felony charges were filed.
Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said, “While we recognize that neither the criminal charges nor the civil lawsuits will offer the residents of Los Angeles County a complete solution, it is important that Southern California Gas Co. be held responsible for its criminal actions.”
While this sounds like a noble goal, as well as a sincere admission that authorities’ responses have been insufficient, the details of the lawsuit are less impressive. According to the county’s press release, SoCal Gas is charged with “three counts of failing to report the release of hazardous materials from Oct. 23 to Oct. 26, 2015, and one count of discharging air contaminants, beginning on Oct. 23, 2015, to the present.”
The statement continues:
If convicted, the company could be fined up to $25,000 a day for each day that it failed to notify the California Office of Emergency Services. The company also could be fined up to $1,000 per day for air pollution violations.
Costs from claims and civil suits alone may exceed $1 billion, but the fines sought in Lacey’s suit will likely total less than $1 million.
Perhaps the most glaring element of the recent criminal suit is the District Attorney’s seemingly timid attempt to hold the utility accountable. Though the District Attorney’s office heralds accountability — and Lacey’s biography boasts that her office has waged 71,000 felony prosecutions — the local public attorney mustered only four misdemeanor charges for a giant corporation, whose parent company has close ties to the Governor of California. Governor Jerry Brown waited nearly three months to declare a state of emergency in Porter Ranch.
“We cannot comment on an ongoing investigation and we cannot discuss our filing considerations with the public on a pending and open case,” Assistant Chief of Media Relations Jane Robison told Anti-Media Thursday morning. Robison is a former reporter, and Lacey’s media department is staffed with other former journalists.
At the time of this article’s publication, Robison has yet to respond to follow-up questions sent this morning seeking information on the specific policy that precludes the District Attorney from providing details to the public it claims to serve. It is not implausible that certain legal regulations or stipulations impede the county’s District Attorney from pressing more aggressive charges — or that there is another explanation for the tepid ones filed — but Robison’s brief comments did not identify any such factors in the decision to file misdemeanors. Anti-Media will update this story if she provides further explanation.
At least one previous ruling in the Porter Ranch case has failed to satisfy residents.
The regional South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) held a multi-part hearing in January, after which an independent hearing board ruled the company would not be allowed to continue using the leaking well after it was repaired. It also ordered the utility to pay for an independent study on the health effects of the methane, which contains mercaptans, benzene — a known carcinogen SoCal Gas initially downplayed — and hydrogen sulfide, which may be responsible for residents’ nosebleeds. However, the order did not specifically stipulate that the health study had to test for all of these elements.
Though SCAQMD’s decision was deemed a victory for the public, the decision disappointed local activists, who campaigned and protested to have the decades-old facility, one of the largest in the country, entirely shut down.
Further, though SCAQMD ordered SoCal Gas to stop using the well once it is repaired, critics allege the decision actually helps the company. In January, the Daily News noted a potential conflict of interest: Robert A. Wyman Jr., an attorney representing SoCal Gas, “…serves on a five-member advisory committee that recommends and reviews appointments to the SCAQMD Hearing Board,” the local paper reported.
Robert F. Kennedy, who is helping organize one of the class action suits against the company, commented on the board’s decision:
“The order approved by SoCal Gas from AQMD is a collusive consent order intended to immunize SoCal Gas from a Clean Air Act Citizen Suit Action. The proposed Order allegedly resolves all liability issues with a sweetheart deal, and now a complaint, requesting only nominal civil penalties,” he said in a statement.
Accusing SCAQMD of “behaving like sock puppets for a company that they are charged with regulating,” Kennedy concluded that “SoCal Gas’ Porter Ranch well failure is also a failure of government. It’s time that regulators recall that they are public servants – not indentured servants to the gas company.”
Various civil lawsuits have been filed against the utility, including one from California’s attorney general. A press release announcing that suit listed the many agencies involved in resolving the situation:
“[T]hese agencies include the California Energy Commission, the California Public Utilities Commission, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment and the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Also included are the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 9 and Los Angeles County,” the press release noted.
Considering the myriad agencies involved in containing the leak and providing accountability, it is questionable at least — and criminal, at worst — that so little progress has been made.
SoCal Gas has announced it intends to plug to leak by the end of this month. It has also vowed to “vigorously defend” itself in court. Addressing Lacey’s lawsuit, SoCal Gas spokeswoman Kristine Lloyd said, “We have been working with regulatory agencies to mitigate the odors associated with the natural gas leak and to abate the gas leak as quickly as safety allows. We will defend ourselves vigorously through the judicial process.”
Though SoCal Gas has repeatedly promised to resolve the ongoing disaster — and to take responsibility for it — many residents and activists do not take their claims seriously.
Meanwhile, City Councilmember Mitchell Englander, who represents residents in Porter Ranch, dismissed the notion that the criminal charges were excessive.
“Quite frankly, it’s not litigation overkill at all,“ he said. “The damage the gas has caused to residents, the environment, the economy, is unprecedented.”
Further, Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit consumer organization, questioned the system at large.
“This is a coup of government agencies working in secrecy, to figure out how they don’t step on each others’ toes,” Jamie Court, president of the organization, told the Los Angeles Times.
“The public needs to be part of this process. There are too many political alliances and allegiances here.”
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