POLITICS--Attorney Patricia K. Oliver alleges that SoCalGas is “deliberately advancing a deceptive AQMD order that would immunize the gas company from liability for its massive negligence at Aliso Canyon, which is sickening thousands of Porter Ranch residents” in a letter she sent to the South Coast Air Quality Management District last week.
In a formal written objection to the adoption of the order agreed upon by SoCalGas attorneys, Oliver claims the stipulated order constitutes “a deprivation of rights and results in a denial of due process” to Porter Ranch residents. She also alleges that the gas company is withholding information regarding the extent of environmental damage.
The attorney points out that the experts charged with assessing the situation are paid for by SoCalGas. Instead of using air testing, the inspectors have been basing findings on infrared detection, which determined that any leaks were “minor” and have been repaired.
The impact on the health of residents and potential loss of property has led many residents to join in class action suits against the gas company, including Oliver’s clients.
In her letter, the attorney addresses that compliance with the proposed order must not immunize the gas company from liability or as defense to civil litigation, including the residents’ right to due process regarding taking of property.
Other issues addressed by the attorney include whether the gas company will continue injections and the extent of the gas leak. The gas company claims it cannot determine the volume of gas lost into the atmosphere. The attorney is asking for different methods to determine the impact and for transparency, as well as for an outside party to handle inspections and related issues instead of self-policing, especially in the areas of gas leaks and health studies. In its efforts to protect itself, the gas company, claims the attorney, has refused to disclose consumer complaints.
The SCAQMD Hearing Board ordered SoCalGas to enact a comprehensive program to cut air pollution and odors resulting from the Aliso Canyon Gas Leak. The order does require the gas company to permanently shut down the well causing the leak, to enhance monitoring of air quality in the nearby community, and to complete a health study on the potential effects of well emissions to Porter Ranch residents, as well as to institute a comprehensive leak detection program.
The SCAQMD, the air pollution control agency for Orange County, major portions of LA county, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties, along with other environmental agencies, continues to monitor the leak, measuring levels of methane and other air toxins including benzene and sulfur compounds added to natural gas to give the gas the recognizable foul odor.
Since October, hundreds of residents have reported the odor, as well as symptoms including nausea, dizziness, and headaches. Over 2,300 households have been temporarily relocated and students at two Porter Ranch elementary and middle schools have been moved to other campuses. Those exposed to gas may face future unknown health issues, as well as potential property loss.
In 2010, the gas company proposed spending close to $900,000 to replace five percent of its leaking valves per year in a program that would take twenty years. Despite a ratepayer increase and annual profits of almost $100 million, SoCalGas appears to have been slow in its fix of the valves. In addition, the company allegedly removed and failed to replace a safety valve on the leaking well. A class action suit alleges SoCalGas and its parent company “negligently failed to construct, operate, and maintain” the storage facility.
Just last week, L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer forced the gas company to back away from a plan to relocate residents to motels and hotels instead of rental houses that are harder to find and more costly for the short-term.
Relying on SoCalGas to monitor the gas leak, to assess the situation, and to fund any research on the impact is like leaving the fox in charge of the chicken coop.
(Beth Cone Kramer is a Los Angeles-based writer and CityWatch contributor.)