For a third time, an air quality hearing board has put off a decision on what actions Southern California Gas Company must take to reduce the effects of its leaking natural gas storage field near Porter Ranch.
Wednesday's meeting of the South Coast Air Quality Management District's hearing board was billed as the one at which SoCal Gas would respond to nearly 14 hours of public testimony and address the terms of an order the company and agency negotiated.
It was also expected to be the day when the hearing board -- which acts as an administrative law judge for the AQMD -- would hold its public deliberations and announce its decision on the order. But that didn't happen.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, LA County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, Assemblyman Scott Wilk (R-Santa Clarita) and 31 community members wrote the board asking for the decision to be delayed so that a fourth hearing could be held -- this time in the affected communities of Porter Ranch, Chatsworth and Granada Hills, not at the AQMD's Diamond Bar headquarters.
Councilman Mitch Englander, who represents the area, also wanted the proceeding delayed to accommodate a meeting closer to Porter Ranch homes.
Englander said he and the other politicians and their calls for locally-held hearings were not to blame for the belated decision-making. Rather, he said it was the agency's fault for dragging out the hearings since the first was held Jan. 9 and not holding the follow-on hearings at quicker intervals.
"There seems to be delay upon delay in making some concrete decisions," Englander said. "That's what's most frustrating."
The order is essentially an agreement between the air quality regulators and SoCal Gas on what the company should do to stop the leak and end the order. It also describes the penalty the company should undergo for stinking up the Porter Ranch area and forcing thousands of families to flee the area.
The repeated postponements on a decision on the order has delayed SoCal Gas Co. from starting work on:
- Creating a program to improve its gas well leak detection
- Increasing the amount of its public reporting on the condition of 115 gas storage wells at Aliso Canyon
- Committing to fund a study of the health effects of the leak on local residents.
The order also would require SoCal Gas to:
- Continuously monitor the well site with infrared cameras that can make visible the normally invisible methane gas, and to make the data and images available to AQMD staff. (While the data from those cameras would be made public, the images should not be public, said Robert Wyman, an attorney representing SoCal Gas. He said such images could violate gas company trade secrets or violate the rights of SoCal Gas Co. customers. However hearing board member David Holtzman disagreed. He said the AQMD had recently issued at least one previous order that images of a pollution site be posted publicly for the community to monitor, and that they should consider imposing that requirement on SoCal Gas.
- Publicly post its daily air quality monitoring data.
- Stop injecting natural gas into the underground storage field until the leak is plugged and to provide estimates of how much gas is being injected once injections resume.
- Withdraw the maximum amount of gas it can from the underground storage field, and to estimate how much has been withdrawn and how much was lost to the leaking well.
- Fund continuous air monitoring plan for surrounding community and schools.
The gas company isn't required to enter the agreement, which could make it subject to requirements more extensive than the remedies the AQMD could impose under law. In a separate proceeding the AQMD could impose substantial fines via an out-of-court agreement negotiated with SoCal Gas.
The draft of proposed steps and penalties has changed a couple of times since it was first proposed. A key change is that AQMD is dropping the requirement that SoCal Gas capture and dispose of methane that now is leaking from the broken well and rising into the atmosphere as a potent greenhouse gas. SoCal Gas had initially prepared a plan but this week told the state Public Utilities Commission that it was unable to capture and dispose of the escaping methane safely enough.
The three hearing sessions (Jan. 9, 16 and 20) have rolled out somewhat like a trial at which anybody who wants to testify may do so. Some 115 individuals gave statements over the three hearings. Two Saturday sessions lasting from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. drew hundreds of witnesses and spectators. Yet they were not enough to accommodate all the three-minute declarations from families, local businesses and others about what they've gone through and what they want to have happen.
"We've heard time and time again of hardships that the community in Granada Hills is enduring, not just today, but for three months," said Hearing board Chairman Edward Camarena as he opened Wednesday's hearing, and pleaded with witnesses to avoid repeating points already made by others. "We get it."
A key demand among some of the public hearing witnesses is that the 3,600-acre Aliso Canyon Gas Storage Facility be completely shut down.
Area resident Marco Maldonado testified as his pregnant wife stood by his side holding a sign reading "Shut. It. All. Down." He said SoCal Gas should have to certify all its wells are functional and have up-to-date safety equipment before it is permitted to continue operating at the site and that data on air emissions be posted for the public to analyze.
"I want to see how I and my baby may be impacted," Maldonado told the hearing board.
AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood said the proposed order before the hearing board does not call for shutting down the storage field. Gas company spokespeople have said the storage field, its largest, is a key component of Southern California's energy reliability.
The hearing board members spent part of Wednesday's hearing in a sometimes fruitless effort to wrest specifics from SoCal Gas Co. officials about the leak and the operation of the gas storage field. Board vice-chair Julie Prussack, for example, attempted to get the executive who oversees the facility to estimate the maximum amount of gas that could be withdrawn under the AQMD order to reduce the underground pressure.
She rephrased her question several times, and the executive repeatedly conferred with a gas company attorney, but ultimately, citing a fear that they might provide a wrong number, they ended up not giving a firm estimate.
Deliberation of the board on the terms of its order, and possibly a final vote, was continued until 9 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 23, at the Hilton Woodland Hills.