Southern California Gas Company, the utility that operated the storage system behind the massive natural gas leak in Aliso Canyon, has agreed to pay $4 million in a settlement with the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.
SoCal Gas pleaded no contest to one misdemeanor count of failing to immediately alert state authorities to the leak when it first began in October of 2015, instead waiting days to contact state emergency services. The leak continued for 112 days, releasing 97,100 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere and prompting the evacuation of at least 8,000 residents from the Porter Ranch community. While the storage facility was leaking, it became the largest man-made source of methane in the country, and eventually became the largest gas leak in U.S. history. Methane is 86 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
The settlement includes $307,500 in fines and penalties, according to Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey. SoCal Gas will also be required to install a new, infrared methane monitoring system, which the district attorney’s office estimates will cost the company between $1.2 and $1.5 million. The company will also need to hire six full-time employees to maintain the new leak detection system on a 24-hour basis, which will cost the company another $2.25 for the next three years.
“This agreement ensures that Southern California Gas Co. is held accountable for its criminal actions for failing to immediately report the leak,” Lacey said in a statement. According to the Los Angeles Times, filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange show that the leak has already cost SoCalGas more than $700 million.
But Food and Water Watch, an environmental advocacy group that has called for the shutdown of the Aliso Canyon storage facility, called the fine “barely a slap on the wrist.”
“No fine can make SoCalGas’ aging Aliso Canyon Storage Facility safe. Yesterday’s leak, the fourth since last October’s blowout, shows that the facility is beyond simple repair and continues to pose a threat to the health of the families of Porter Ranch and to the environment,” Alexandra Nagy, a senior organizer for Food and Water Watch, said in a statement.
While the settlement ends prosecution brought by the district attorney’s office, the utility still faces more than 100 civil lawsuits from residents of Porter Ranch. Methane has not been associated with long-term health effects in humans, but residents of Porter Ranch complained of short-term health impacts from odorants found in the gas itself, such as headaches, nausea, weakness, fatigue, incoordination, and irritation of mucous membranes.
In addition to the civil lawsuits, SoCal Gas still faces multiple lawsuits at the state and city level, including the California attorney general and the city of Los Angeles. Both of those lawsuits seek financial penalties. The South Coast Air Quality Management District is also attempting to levy a fine on the utility.