Environment & Science

LA County sues SoCalGas to force installation of safety shut-off valves

An aerial view of the leaking Aliso Canyon well pad near Porter Ranch on Dec. 17, 2015.
An aerial view of the leaking Aliso Canyon well pad near Porter Ranch on Dec. 17, 2015.
Earthworks via Flickr Creative Commons

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In the latest legal fallout from the massive Porter Ranch natural gas leak, Los Angeles County went to court Monday seeking to force Southern California Gas Co. to install underground safety shut-off valves on every active gas storage well and distribution pipeline it operates in the county. 

The suit, filed in L.A. County Superior Court, claims SoCal Gas "put corporate profits before public safety" by failing more than 30 years ago to replace a faulty shut-off valve on the well that blew last fall at its Aliso Canyon storage facility.

The complaint says a number of the company's 229 active L.A. County gas wells "are plagued with corrosion, structural integrity problems, erosion, and other safety hazards," and refers to a number of other leaks that have occurred at three other SoCal Gas storage facilities elsewhere in the county.

The complaint also seeks "punitive and/or exemplary damages in an amount sufficient to punish, deter, and make an example of SoCal Gas." County attorneys say it would be up to a jury to determine the amount.

"The gas company has demonstrated time and time again that they are unwilling to uphold their responsibilities," says Supervisor Mike Antonovich. "They failed to reimburse the thousands of resident in a timely manner, they failed to adequately clean the impacted homes, they have failed to learn lessons from the leak and install common sense safety equipment."

SoCal Gas has not yet reviewed the lawsuit, says spokeswoman Melissa Bailey.

The well in question at Porter Ranch - known as SS-25 - was opened in 1953 with a subsurface safety valve. The company said it removed the valve in 1979 because it was old and leaking.

On Monday SoCal Gas again defended its decision not to replace the valve on the grounds that such action was not required under state regulations. 

Only wells defined as "critical" must have such shut-off valves. A well is considered "critical" if it is within 300 feet of a home; SS-25 is about a mile from any houses.

Skip Miller, an attorney representing the county, says a shut-off valve would have prevented or greatly limited the size of the Porter Ranch leak.

"If they had just been using the metal piping and the valve had been working, Aliso Canyon would not have happened," he adds.

The lawsuit is necessary because many of SoCal Gas' active wells are old and have already experienced leaks, says Miller.

"This lawsuit is not just about Aliso [Canyon]," he says. "Aliso has about 115 wells; there are [approximately] another 130 gas injection withdrawal wells in the county at other gas fields: Marina Del Rey, Playa Del Rey, Montebello and Santa Clarita. It’s a problem because of the age of these wells."

Dozens of SoCal Gas' wells are older than SS-25

The Porter Ranch gas leak began on Oct. 23, 2015. After several unsuccessful attempts, crews finally capped it on Feb. 18. It spewed some 5.4 billion cubic feet of the potent greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere, along with trace amounts of other chemicals, according to state and local regulators.

Many Porter Ranch residents subsequently complained of headaches, nausea, dizziness and vomiting. Eventually, several thousand relocated to temporary housing. In a May report to shareholders, SoCal Gas estimated it would spend around $465 million by June 7 on residents' relocation expenses and the cleanup of their homes.

The gas company is already facing a joint lawsuit from the city and county of L.A., the state attorney general and the state Air Resources Board accusing it of negligence in Porter Ranch. In March, a judge agreed to consolidate dozens of other lawsuits filed on behalf of Porter Ranch residents.

This story has been updated.