A judge ruled Friday that there's not enough evidence to show that it's unsafe for thousands of Porter Ranch residents displaced by the natural gas leak to return home, but she ordered Southern California Gas Co. to provide one additional week of subsidized temporary housing for them beyond Friday's deadline.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Emilie Elias dissolved the injunction that had required SoCal Gas to continue paying for the temporary housing, but she stayed that part of her ruling through Tuesday to give L.A. County one last chance to appeal. County lawyers told the judge that they did plan to take the case to an appellate court.
"I have absolutely no evidence that says those houses [in Porter Ranch] are not safe," said Judge Elias. " I kept waiting to see a reason the houses were not habitable."
Elias said the extra week of subsidized housing will give those who are ready to move back time to do so in an orderly fashion.
Any families not ready to return to Porter Ranch can stay in temporary housing on their own dime, said the judge.
"No one is going to make these people move back," said Elias. "No one is going to say you have to live in your house."
She also said the displaced are free to seek additional money from SoCal Gas through the courts.
"If they feel they are entitled to some money, that is not being precluded."
Dozens of Porter Ranch residents have already filed lawsuits seeking compensation from the gas company.
SoCal GAs agreed to cover the housing for another week, regardless of the outcome of the county's appeal.
L.A. County's attorneys had asked Elias to order the gas company to provide nearly two additional months of subsidized housing, through May 15. They said hundreds of Porter Ranch residents had complained of problems such as headaches and nausea after the leak was plugged on Feb. 18, and asked for more time to to consult with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the design of an indoor air test to find out why so many continue to experience symptoms.
"When the leak stopped the nuisance didn’t stop," said L.A. County attorney Deborah Fox. "The issue at play is the interior level and the monitoring that has not happened."
The county also wants more time to analyze data it has collected, said Fox. Last week, the county's public health department conducted a door-to-door survey of 210 homes in Porter Ranch.
SoCal Gas' lawyers argued there was no need for an extension, pointing to ongoing monitoring that has found the air in Porter Ranch is safe.
The company's attorneys pointed to the results of air monitoring conducted inside 71 Porter Ranch homes this week that found methane at safe levels in every home, and did not detect any mercaptans, the odorants added to natural gas.
The county has had enough time to provide evidence that the air inside Porter Ranch homes is harmful, but it has failed to do so, said SoCal Gas lawyer Jim Dragna. He said the county's stance has heightened public anxiety for no reason.
"We are in flu season," said Dragna. "The perception symptoms are caused by a well or a field that all of the experts have confirmed have stopped leaking is preposterous without more data."
This was the second time L.A. County asked for an extension. On Feb 25 Judge Elihu Berle granted a three-week extension after the county said it needed more time to determine why some residents were reporting health issues after the leak was capped.
Nearly 8,000 households relocated during the gas leak and many are still living in temporary housing, according to the gas company. It says as of March 15, 1,912 were still in long-term interim housing, 3,114 households were staying in hotels or with friends or family, and 3,189 households had checked out of their temporary lodgings.