Judge approves Aliso Canyon gas leak settlement agreement despite residents' objections

A judge Tuesday approved a settlement between Los Angeles County prosecutors and Southern California Gas Co. to resolve criminal charges stemming from the gas leak at the Aliso Canyon storage facility, rejecting a request by Porter Ranch residents to have the deal tossed so they could seek restitution.

Attorneys representing a group of residents suing the Gas Co. over the leak contended the residents weren't notified of the settlement agreement, which they said does not include provisions giving residents a chance to submit restitution claims against the Gas Co.

Several residents testified at the court hearing in Santa Clarita, contending they were left out of the settlement talks, to no avail. R. Rex Parris, an attorney for the residents, said he plans to appeal the decision.

Melissa Bailey, spokeswoman for SoCalGas, said the company is "glad to have this resolved."

"SoCalGas remains committed to working with our regulators and to complying with laws and regulations applicable to the Aliso Canyon facility," Bailey said.

SoCalGas pleaded no contest Sept. 13 to a misdemeanor count of failing to immediately report the gas leak -- which began Oct. 23, 2015, and wasn't capped until mid-February -- to the state Office of Emergency Services and the local Certified Unified Program Agency.

Three other misdemeanor counts filed against the company in February were dismissed as part of the deal.

The $4 million settlement requires SoCalGas to install and maintain an infrared methane monitoring system at the Aliso Canyon site -- estimated to cost between $1.2 million and $1.5 million -- and to retain an outside company to test and certify that the monitoring system and real-time pressure monitors to be placed at each gas well are working properly.

Under the agreement, a half-dozen full-time employees must be hired to operate and maintain the new leak detection systems 24 hours a day at a cost of about $2.25 million over the next three years.

The agreement also calls for the company to revise and adopt new reporting policies for actual and threatened releases of hazardous materials to the appropriate agencies, and mandates training courses on proper notification procedures for all of the utility's employees who work at natural gas storage facilities within Los Angeles County.

SoCalGas will also pay $307,500 in fines and penalty assessments, along with more than $246,000 for the cost of the investigation and emergency response by the Los Angeles County Fire Department's Health and Hazardous Materials Division.

The utility is on notice that it could face a more serious criminal penalty in the future if the same unlawful conduct occurs, according to the District Attorney's Office, which said the settlement will not interfere with pending civil actions filed by Porter Ranch residents against the company.

The Aliso Canyon gas leak spewed more than 100,000 tons of methane into the air, making it the largest methane leak in U.S. history.

Health concerns stemming from the gas leak prompted thousands of residents to move out of the area into temporary housing at the expense of the Gas Co. Following an extensive effort to clean Porter Ranch-area homes, the bulk of displaced residents returned in June.

County health officials received hundreds of complaints from Porter Ranch residents who returned to their homes and reported more health problems, including nausea, stomach aches and respiratory irritation.

SoCalGas executives, saying sweeping safety improvements have already been made at Aliso Canyon, including the replacement of inner tubing in the wells and the installation of more than 40 miles of new steel piping, have petitioned the state to allow it to resume injecting natural gas into the storage facility.

When the plea agreement to resolve the criminal charges was announced in September, SoCalGas said the deal "provides for the implementation of certain approved operational enhancements, including updated notification, monitoring and training procedures," and the settlement "is another important step in our efforts to put the leak behind us and to win back the trust of the community. These are in addition to other enhancements that have already been instituted by the company."

Utility executives said the Aliso Canyon storage facility "is critical to the reliability of natural gas and electricity services in Southern California. We are diligently working with state officials to complete a comprehensive safety review of the facility and are committed to providing safe and reliable energy to the millions of Californians who rely on us each day."

Attorneys for residents suing the company, however, filed court papers in October asking that the agreement be thrown out. "None of the victims of the defendant's criminal acts were consulted about the plea agreement in advance. The settlement was presented to the court with no notice to, or input from, any of the victims," attorneys Parris, Patricia K. Oliver, Brian Panish and Robert Glassman wrote in the 16-page filing. "Neither the plea agreement, nor the court, so much as mentioned victim restitution as opposed to a restitution fine during the plea."

"... This plea agreement bears every indication of an attempt by defendant to cheat their victims out of their constitutional right to restitution," the attorneys allege in the court filing, saying the issue has "caused the victims great concern and torment."

The filing sought to have what the residents' attorneys call a "silent plea" -- with no mention of restitution to the homeowners -- withdrawn and "their right to full restitution be explicitly expressed by the court."

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