PORTER RANCH, Calif. (FOX 11 / CNS) - Siding with Los Angeles County government officials who said more environmental testing is needed in neighborhoods affected by the Aliso Canyon gas leak, a judge today ordered Southern California Gas Co. to continue funding temporary housing for displaced Porter Ranch residents until March 18.
The Gas Co. had been planning to cut off funding after today, meaning residents displaced by the Aliso Canyon gas leak would have needed to return to their homes by the end of the day.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu M. Berle issued a temporary restraining order preventing the Gas Co. from cutting off funding. The utility's attorneys argued that the county's own health experts said there was no threat of long-term health effects from the leak and that any short-term health effects will dissipate now that the leak has been capped.
The Gas Co. also noted that it is costing the company as much as $2 million a day to house roughly 3,400 displaced residents.
Attorneys for the county, however, argued that some residents who have already returned home after the capping of the leak are still reporting health issues, and more time should be allowed so additional air monitoring can be completed to ensure there is no lingering risk.
The Gas Co. had reached an agreement earlier this month with the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office that gave most displaced residents eight days to return to their homes once the leak was officially declared capped by the state. That declaration was made last Thursday. The company had initially planned to give residents just 48 hours.
Gas Co. spokesman Mike Mizrahi said utility officials will examine their legal options. "We put together a plan for coming home. We entered into an agreement to extend that plan for coming home and now on the day that people are actually checking out, we have this conundrum," Mizrahi said. "So we're perplexed. We need to (look) further into what's transpired here and move ahead accordingly."
Gas Co. officials said residents who were still in hotels today, or who checked out of hotels today, can return to the hotels. Company officials also said the judge's ruling disregarded the findings of all the regulatory agencies that have determined "there is no environmental or health reason for any further delay in enabling residents to return home."
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors -- at the urging of Supervisor Mike Antonovich -- sent a letter to the Gas Co. Feb. 10 requesting a 30-day time period for residents to return home. On Tuesday, the board authorized its attorneys to go to court and seek a temporary restraining order if the Gas Co. refuses the request, which the company did.
"The county Department of Public Health has determined that now that the well is sealed and the emissions have ceased, the time needed for a comprehensive evaluation of the air monitoring results and home testing is at least 30 days," Antonovich said. "An eight-day limit established by the city of Los Angeles and the Gas Company victimizes the victims once again."
Gas Co. officials insisted that the eight-day moving window was more than enough time for residents to return home, and that there was no threat to anyone's health. According to the utility, the county's demand for a 30-day moving window "conflicts with the science and health assessments made by the county's own health experts."
"Regulatory health and air quality authorities, including Los Angeles County Department of Health, the California Air Resources Board, the South Coast Air Quality Management District and CalEPA's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, have been continuously and independently monitoring the air in and around Porter Ranch," according to the company.
"The results of that monitoring, based on a substantial body of scientific data, have demonstrated that the air quality in the area has returned to the typical air-quality conditions that existed prior to the leak. "Based on discussions with the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office, as well as participation by all relevant regulatory experts, extending the time period beyond what was agreed upon by the City Attorney's Office is not consistent with any health and safety conclusions."
State officials announced last Thursday that the leak, which was first detected Oct. 23, had been capped. That announcement began the eight-day clock for residents who have been living in temporary housing at Gas Co. expense to return to home.
Gas Co. officials said Wednesday that 2,081 households had already checked out of their temporary housing and returned home. As of mid-February, more than 4,600 households were in temporary homes, according to SoCalGas.
Tony Bell, spokesman for Antonovich, said the supervisor is "very happy about the judge's ruling today. It's a victory for the residents of Porter Ranch and for fairness, really."
City Councilman Mitch Englander also hailed the ruling. "Before this community can begin to heal, every resident must be confident that this tragedy is behind them and their family is safe," he said.