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SoCal Gas to pay $8.5 million to settle suit over Aliso Canyon blowout

File: Officials from the Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources and California Public Utilities Commission demonstrate a camera during a media event at the Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility near Porter Ranch on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Southern California Gas Co. will pay $8.5 million to settle a lawsuit over the blowout that spewed natural gas for nearly four months and drove thousands of Porter Ranch residents from their homes.

As part of the settlement with the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the gas company will pay $1 million for a health study. That was the last condition of an air district abatement order.

SoCal Gas will also pay $5.65 million in emissions fees, $1.6 million to reimburse the AQMD for air monitoring costs and $250,000 in legal fees.

Kurt Wiese, general counsel for AQMD, called the agreement "an important settlement," adding, "we think it's important to conclude the litigation so that the district health study can be immediately commenced."

SoCal Gas declined to comment beyond a brief written statement in which it said it's "pleased to have worked with AQMD to settle this and other matters."

A top Los Angeles county health official and the president of the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council expressed disappointment with the settlement.

"I think it's inadequate," said Angelo Bellomo, deputy director for health protection at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

"This is a complete disappointment," said Issam Najm of the neighborhood council.

The point of contention is the scope of the health study.

Scientists say the leak discovered in Oct. 2015 and capped in February last year was the largest-known release of climate-changing methane in U.S. history. People living in the area complained of headaches, nausea, nosebleeds, rashes and other ailments during the blowout, and those complaints have continued since it was capped.

Under the settlement, the study will analyze potential short-term and long-term health effects on the Porter Ranch community based on two things: a community health survey, and an assessment of residents' possible exposure to air pollution from the leak, using models based on emissions data.

It does not include what county health officials and residents have been asking for: A longitudinal study that tracks residents' health problems over time.

"You need to follow this population to see how their symptoms are developing, not only what they are today, but how they're developing over time," Bellomo said.

"The need for the health study that we've been talking about is not going to go away based on this settlement," he added. "We're just going to have to find more creative ways to ensure that at the end of the day, this type of study is conducted and it's paid for by the responsible party."

Najm echoed those concerns, saying, "we want a real study. We want a meaningful study. We want a study that finally answers the questions of why there were these … health symptoms in the community that nobody seems to want to touch."

Asked why the settlement doesn't include a long-term health study, the air district's Wiese responded, "we thought it was important that a health study be initiated as quickly as we could, and get information about health effects to the community as quickly as possible." 

The settlement comes as SoCal Gas is awaiting decisions by the state Public Utilities Commission and the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources regarding its request to reopen the entire Aliso Canyon storage field.