Residents Renew Calls to Shut Down Gas Facility After SoCalGas Blamed for Aliso Canyon Leak

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Residents of Porter Ranch hold signs protesting Sempra Energy - the parent company of SoCalGas - amid a new independent report that puts blame for the 2016 Aliso Canyon blowout on the company. (Larry Buhl/KQED)

An independent report issued Friday on the root cause of the massive 2015 methane leak at the Aliso Canyon gas storage field put the blame squarely on its owner, Southern California Gas Company, or SoCalGas.

Lawyers for plaintiffs in multiple lawsuits gathered Monday near the facility just north of Los Angeles, and said the report gives credence to their claims of criminal negligence.

“There’s always the threat or the risk of another blowout, and no one can guarantee despite what SoCalGas says, that it’s not going to happen again,” said Brian Panish, an attorney for some of the plaintiffs who claim long-term health effects and loss of property value from the four-month gas leak.

The blowout in October, 2015 led to the largest release of methane in U.S. history and displaced thousands of residents for months.

Brian Panish, an attorney for some of the plaintiffs who claim long term health effects and loss of property value from the four-month gas leak, speaks to residents of Aliso Canyon on May 20, 2019. (Larry Buhl/KQED)

The long-awaited report, conducted by Blade Energy Partners and commissioned by the California Public Utilities Commission, concluded that the blowout was caused by an old, corroded pipe casing that ruptured under high pressure, allowing gas to leak up through the ground and eventually blow a hole around the well. The report also stated that rupture was the largest of dozens of leaks going back to the 1970s, and that SoCalGas never disclosed those leaks or investigated their causes.

The parent company of SoCalGas, Sempra Energy, released a statement saying that there were no laws requiring such inspections until recently and that “new regulations put in place after the leak should prevent this type of incident from occurring again.” The statement also said the Blade Report “confirmed that Southern California Gas complied with gas storage regulations in existence at the time of the leak and the related compliance activities conducted prior to the leak did not find indications of a casing integrity.”

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“That’s just not true and it’s not supported by the report,” Panish said. “The Blade report concluded that they failed to follow well integrity regulations, exposing Porter Ranch and its community to significant risk of well failures. And they never tried to find out the reasons why they had prior well failures.”

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Loraine Lundquist, a faculty associate at CalState Northridge, lives a few miles from the leak and said she saw many students suffering health effects from the long-term methane leak, and she pointed out that the facility is located on top of an active earthquake fault.

“There was a seismic study released not long ago that showed that there could be an earthquake that could rupture multiple wells. And we still don’t have laws for how to handle facilities that cross an earthquake structure at depth. So the legal framework is still inadequate for structures like this," said Lundquist, who is running for an open seat on the L.A. City Council on a platform of shutting down Aliso Canyon permanently.

SoCalGas says the facility is needed to maintain energy reliability in the region.

Oral arguments will be heard Thursday in the California Court of Appeals, and attorneys are asking for actual and punitive damages.

Lori Aivazian, resident of nearby Porter Ranch, read the summary of the report and said she was not surprised by the revelations.

“It’s nice to see in print how negligent and poorly maintained the facility was, because we all knew it," Aivazian said.

Residents hold signs in Aliso Canyon on May 20, 2019. (Larry Buhl/KQED)

Aivazian added she and her family suffered severe health effects immediately after the blowout and had to move away for relief.

In a statement, State Sen. Henry Stern, who represents the Porter Ranch area, said that the Senate would follow up with a legislative oversight hearing to delve deeper into the report. He added, “It seems obvious that the CPUC should not force ratepayers to foot the bill for this avoidable disaster, and that the injuries to our community, its residents and our first responders can be attributed to the Gas Company’s careless maintenance of this massive fossil fuel facility in our backyards.”

U.S. Congressman Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), also renewed his call to shut down Aliso Canyon. “It’s time for the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to force SoCal Gas to develop a system that allows for energy reliability for the region,” he said.

State regulators allowed the facility to reopen on limited basis in July 2017. Efforts by Los Angeles County officials to block the reopening failed in court.

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