Organized protests took over and ultimately shut down a public meeting that state energy officials had called Wednesday night to gather public comment about whether Southern California Gas Co. should be allowed to resume operations at the site of the nation's worst-ever natural gas leak.
It was the first of two meetings set for Wednesday and Thursday evenings about reopening the 3,600-acre Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility in the foothills above Porter Ranch. SoCal Gas needs state approval to refill its underground reservoir with the gas that serves as a backup supply for the region's power companies and other customers.
Wednesday's turbulent meeting highlighted the frustration of Porter Ranch residents at the prospect that the gas storage field could return to normal functioning.
Soon after the meeting started, Matt Pakucko, head of the residents' environmental advocacy group Save Porter Ranch grabbed an unused microphone, and declared the group's own agenda was replacing the state utility and gas regulators' plans. When the sound engineers cut power to his mic, he produced a bullhorn and was joined onstage by a dozen others, many wearing red "Shut It Down" T-shirts.
For about a half hour, they held forth with statements about the illnesses they attribute to the gas storage field's well blowout.
"If you cannot absolutely state, with the root cause analysis completed, what caused the blowout, then you cannot claim that this facility is safe," Pakucko told the crowd, which responded with chants of "Shut it down!"
A "root cause investigation" is still in the planning phase. It would involve dismantling the well that ruptured and removing parts of the well shaft for examination by state regulators.
It's been more than a year since an aging gas well ruptured and spewed methane for four months, forcing thousands of families to relocate. The well was finally capped in February of 2016. Since then, 34 of the site's 114 natural gas wells have been overhauled and certified by the state as safe to use to move gas in and out of a depleted oil reservoir underground.
When the neighborhood group relinquished the stage after about a half-hour, several of the area's elected officials spoke.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, City Councilman Mitchell Englander, Los Angeles Unified School District Board Member Scott Schmerelson and state Senator Henry Stern called for the gas field to be kept inoperative at least until an independent investigation into the cause of the well break is completed. Representatives for Sen. Diane Feinstein and Rep Brad Sherman also spoke in favor of keeping the gas field closed.
At least 75 members of the public lined up before two microphones to speak, but those favoring a reopening of the gas field were repeatedly booed by the crowd.
"VICA supports the safe reopening of the Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility," Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry Commerce Association, said to a chorus of boos and jeers.
He wasn't having it, and shouted to the crowd, "In a democracy, we let people speak whether you agree with them or not."
At that point, the moderator said the meeting had become unsafe and shut it down.
The public meetings were the last hurdle before the executive officers of the Public Utilities Commission and the state Department of Conservation decide whether SoCal Gas may resume injections and withdrawals of gas. It's unclear how the public outcry or sentiments of the elected officials might affect the position of utilities and energy regulators.
SoCal Gas was not on the agenda to speak. In a written statement, company spokesman Chris Gilbride said the utility supports public participation in the hearings and reiterated the extensive upgrades to the wells and safety equipment that had been installed.