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California Utility Faces Criminal Charges Over Ongoing Gas Leak

On Jan. 16, Tera Lecuona, resident of the Porter Ranch area of Los Angeles, holds a protest sign during a hearing over a gas leak at Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon Storage Facility. The company faces misdemeanor charges as well as numerous civil lawsuits.
Richard Vogel

Southern California Gas Co., the utility that owns a natural gas storage well that has been leaking since November, faces criminal charges over the leak and its alleged delay in alerting authorities to the problem.

Los Angeles County prosecutors have charged the company with three misdemeanor counts of failing to report the leak from Oct. 23 to Oct. 26, as well as one misdemeanor count over the leak itself.

The company could be fined up to $25,000 for each day it didn't alert authorities, and $1,000 for each day the leak continued, the LA District Attorney's Office says in a statement.

As we've reported, the leak at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility began in late October. Since then, it has been releasing massive quantities of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as well as trace amounts of chemicals such as the carcinogen benzene. The leaking gas also contains odorants that cause nausea, headaches and nosebleeds, affecting residents of nearby Porter Ranch.

The leak is invisible to the naked eye but can be viewed with infrared cameras.

"The amount of gas leaking from the underground storage field has fallen since it peaked in late November, but the utility doesn't expect to plug the leak until later this month," freelance reporter Danielle Karson tells our Newscast unit. "Meanwhile, the fumes from thousands of tons of methane gas have created a public health nightmare. Two schools have closed, and thousands of people living nearby have been relocated."

In addition to the criminal charges, SoCalGas faces a number of civil lawsuits. Most recently, California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced Tuesday that she is suing the company for creating a public nuisance and violating the state health and safety code.

SoCalGas has also been sued by the city and county of Los Angeles; owners of businesses in Porter Ranch; residents of Porter Ranch; and the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

You can read more of our coverage of the Aliso Canyon leak here.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.
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