LA County tells SoCal Gas to resume cleaning Porter Ranch houses

Protestors rally before a May 19 public health meeting at Porter Ranch Community School.
Protestors rally before a May 19 public health meeting at Porter Ranch Community School.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Three days after halting the operation, Los Angeles County Wednesday told Southern California Gas Co. to immediately resume cleaning the homes of Porter Ranch residents displaced by the Aliso Canyon natural gas leak. 

The county's Department of Public Health issued a stop-work order on Sunday after agency experts observing the cleaning "concluded that it did not comply with the Public Health cleaning protocol," the department said in a statement.  It found that the gas company's contractors were not properly equipped or trained to carry out the work according to the agency's strict requirements.

The operation also lacked adequate supervision and quality control, said Angelo Bellomo, Public Health's deputy director for health protection.

After subsequent discussions, Public Health officials Wednesday directed SoCal Gas to resume the work right away based on a new Interior Cleaning Work Plan. As part of the updated approach, the cleaning contractors must provide a greater level of supervision for their crews in the field, and the gas company must provide "quality assurance/quality control" to oversee the contractors, said Bellomo.

As a third layer of oversight, Public Health officials  will be in the field monitoring the cleaning, he said.

SoCal Gas spokeswoman Melissa Bailey said via email that "the professional environmental cleaning firms we have contracted to do this work have been fully trained to carry-out the cleaning according to [Public Health's] protocol."

SoCalGas "worked quickly and cooperatively" with the county "to clarify the County’s revised cleaning protocol for relocated Porter Ranch residents," she said.

The county's cleaning protocol calls for the cleaning of all ductwork, cleaning all hard and soft surfaces with vacuums equipped with high efficiency particulate air filters, replacement of air conditioning and ventilation filters, and more.

SoCal Gas is still covering the living expenses of some 2,500 households that have not returned home since crews capped the gas leak at the Aliso Canyon gas storage field in February. They have until 5 p.m. Friday to notify the gas company that they want their houses cleaned. (Originally those staying in hotels had until 5 p.m. Wednesday, but on Wednesday afternoon Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Wiley combined the deadlines, according to lawyers representing residents suing SoCal Gas.)

Once SoCal Gas has cleaned a home, the occupants have two days to return before their subsidies end.

Public Health officials said those interested in scheduling a cleaning appointment should contact SoCal Gas at 877-766-7572 or visit the company's Community Resource Center at 19731 Rinaldi Street in Northridge.

More instructions are available here.

Wiley has also expanded the calendar for people to schedule cleanings, said Paul Kiesel, one of the Porter Ranch plaintiffs' lawyers. Previously they had to schedule a cleaning by May 29, but now they have through June 1, he said, adding that if the schedule fills up, SoCal Gas must extend the signups through June 7.

In the three months since the leak was capped, hundreds of Porter Ranch residents have complained of symptoms similar to those experienced during the leak - such as headaches and nausea. 

A county investigation found small amounts of barium sulfate and other metals in the dust of 100 Porter Ranch homes and two schools. The metals matched those found in mud around the site of the broken well. Some of the metals are regularly found in well drilling fluids. 

The presence of the dust was below what health officials say is likely to cause long-term health problems, but it could have been the cause of some of the symptoms reported by residents after the leak was contained.

Wiley ordered the gas company last Friday to clean the homes of the relocated residents.

SoCal Gas has subsidized the living expenses of about 8,000 displaced households  at one point or another since the leak erupted last fall. In filings to shareholders, the company has said its relocation program, which began in December, would cost more than $465 million through June 7.

The gas company remains locked in a standoff with the county over a separate Public Health directive. It orders SoCal Gas to offer, and to provide at its own expense if the resident accepts the offer, a thorough cleaning of any home within the borders of the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council and of any home in a five-mile radius around the site of the leak whose occupants reported health problems.

SoCal Gas has refused to comply with that order. On Wednesday the county reiterated its stance that "it is important" for the gas company to comply, and that Public Health "will continue to demand that SoCal Gas clean all homes covered" by its directive.

This story has been updated with additional information, and to reflect that as of late Wednesday afternoon all of the remaining displaced have until 5 p.m. Friday to request a cleaning. It also clarifies who is affected by Public Health's separate directive to SoCal Gas.