Environment & Science

Porter Ranch: SoCal Gas-AQMD gas leak settlement finalized despite health study complaints

Dr. Cyrus Rangan, director of the Bureau of Toxicology and Environmental Assessment, speaks during a public health meeting at Porter Ranch Community School on Thursday evening, May 19, 2016 following a fall 2015 gas leak that has forced residents from their homes.
Dr. Cyrus Rangan, director of the Bureau of Toxicology and Environmental Assessment, speaks during a public health meeting at Porter Ranch Community School on Thursday evening, May 19, 2016 following a fall 2015 gas leak that has forced residents from their homes.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

The answer: $1 million.

The question: How much should Southern California Gas Company, responsible for the nation's largest-ever uncontrolled natural gas leak, pay to fund a study of how the blowout affected the health of residents who live in nearby Porter Ranch?

To county health officials and some Porter Ranch residents, the million-dollar agreement appeared insufficient.

Despite those objections, Southern California Gas Company cleared the final hurdle Thursday to end a lawsuit brought by the South Coast Air Quality Management District over pollution from the nation's largest-ever uncontrolled methane leak.

The company had reached an $8.5-million settlement with the South Coast Air Quality Management District last month including the million-dollar health study, but for it to take effect and for money to change hands, both parties needed the AQMD's independent hearing board to drop its enforcement action against SoCal Gas.

The hearing board voted 5-0 Thursday to drop its order of abatement against SoCal Gas in a motion that also criticized the amount for the health study.

County health officials and some Porter Ranch residents testified before the board Thursday that the AQMD had settled for too little money for a health study. The utility had agreed to fund "the reasonable costs of a health study."

"This settlement essentially gets the gas company off the hook," said Dr. Cyrus Rangan of the county Department of Public Health. The county's position is that $1 million is not enough money to produce meaningful data.

The million-dollar study falls far short of what Public Health officials had estimated would be necessary to perform a long-term health study.

"Thirty-five to $40 million is the estimate is for the proper health study, which would be projected for 10 years or so, and perhaps longer," Dr. Cyrus Rangan said.

Attorneys for SoCal Gas and the AQMD argued that once they reached agreement on the settlement and health study amount, the independent hearing board had no further authority to extend its jurisdiction over the company.

SoCal Gas is in the latter stages of seeking clearance from state gas and utility regulators to resume filling its massive underground gas storage reservoir at the north end of the San Fernando Valley. Environmental groups, some Porter Ranch residents, several local and state-elected officials want to keep the field from resuming normal use at least until the cause of the October 2015 well blowout is fully diagnosed.

Clearing its crowded docket of one important piece of litigation helps SoCal Gas make that case that it is mending fences with public agencies and being a responsible company.

The investor-owned utility has faced investigations from a dozen federal, state and local agencies and it is named in 250 lawsuits with at least 14,000 plaintiffs, according to its annual report.

The annual report, issued this week, said the company has already incurred expenses totaling $780 million from the gas well blowout as of Dec. 31. That's up from $717 million in a report out last August.

SoCal Gas typically fills the field with gas during the summer when prices are low and withdraws the gas in the winter when it is more expensive. The company also earns money storing gas for other companies that buy their own gas from out-of-state suppliers.