THE Southern California Gas Company (SoCal) has reached a US$4m settlement with prosecutors for a criminal charge relating to a 112-day gas leak between October 2015 and February 2016.
SoCal pleaded “no contest” to one charge of failing to immediately report the leak on 23 October 2015, to the California Office of Emergency Services and other local authorities. The settlement includes a US$307,500 fine and penalty, US$1.2m–1.5m for the installation of a new infrared methane monitoring system at the Aliso Canyon site, and six full-time employees to maintain the monitoring system for three years at a cost of US$2.25m.
The agreement requires the company to adopt new reporting policies for actual and threatened releases of hazardous materials to the appropriate agencies, and mandates training courses for SoCal’s employees.
“This agreement ensures that [SoCal] is held accountable for its criminal actions for failing to immediately report the leak,” said the Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey. “Going forward the protections put in place by this agreement create a safer facility for its employees, the environment and the surrounding communities.”
The leak released over 100,000 t of methane before it was sealed and was the US’ largest methane release, forcing over 11,000 residents from Porter Ranch and other surrounding areas to be evacuated.
The District Attorney’s office said the conviction means the company is on notice and could face more criminal penalties in the future if similar incidents occur. It also said the settlement will not interfere with the pending civil actions against the company.
A number of residents launched a civil complaint after reporting health problems such as nausea, headaches or migraines, breathing difficulties, rashes and nosebleeds. However a study by Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response (CASPER) found these symptoms were most likely caused by metal contaminants, not as a direct cause of methane exposure, which SoCal has not taken responsibility for.
SoCal says it is working to restore operations at the Aliso Canyon site safely and is following all safety enhancements required by the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR).
“We are diligently following all regulations and state laws, and we aim to receive authorisation to partially restore operations at the field by late summer,” said SoCal COO, Bret Lane.
As part of the DOGGR requirements, SoCal’s 114 active wells must undergo two phases of safety testing. 21 wells have gone through both phases of testing so far, with 18 receiving final approval.
The Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council is challenging the Governor’s Office to eliminate the need for Aliso Canyon site altogether.
Issam Najm, council president, said: “We need to consider how to configure the system so as to eliminate the need for Aliso Canyon and any other urban storage facility.”
He added that funds from SoCal’s settlement should come back to the communities in the form of steep subsidies for rooftop solar systems, which would reduce reliance on power and gas demand.
SoCal must complete the terms of the settlement by 29 November, at which point, the remaining three criminal charges brought against the company will be dismissed.
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