Politics

LA County and SoCal Gas in court fight over gas leak cleanup

A moving van sits in front of Rhonda Collins' rented home in Porter Ranch on Jan. 28, 2016. Collins and her family moved after becoming ill from the massive gas leak at the Southern California Gas Company storage facility in Aliso Canyon. SoCal Gas has been cleaning homes in the area.
A moving van sits in front of Rhonda Collins' rented home in Porter Ranch on Jan. 28, 2016. Collins and her family moved after becoming ill from the massive gas leak at the Southern California Gas Company storage facility in Aliso Canyon. SoCal Gas has been cleaning homes in the area.
Stephanie O'Neill/KPCC

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Los Angeles County will contest Southern California Gas Co.'s request that a judge void an order that the utility deep clean thousands of Porter Ranch homes affected by the massive natural gas leak that erupted last fall, a public health official said Wednesday.

SoCal Gas has already cleaned the homes of 1700 families who were displaced by the leak at its Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility. On Tuesday it asked an L.A. County Superior Court judge to void a May 13 L.A. County Department of Public Health order to clean any other homes in a 5-mile radius of the ruptured well where people reported symptoms such as headaches and nausea. 

That could include as many as 8,500 homes,  Public Health Interim director Cynthia Harding said in a July 11 letter to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

"This is not an operator who appears to be interested in complying with the directives they've been issued," said Angelo Bellomo, Public Health's deputy director for health protection.  "It requires multiple discussions with them and often assistance from the courts."

In its petition to the court, SoCal Gas argued that the county's order is "arbitrary, capricious," overbroad and not authorized by law because there is no public health hazard in the Porter Ranch area.

The company said the county can’t show the small amounts of metals found in 17 percent of the homes it sampled present a health risk because they are "more than 200 times below concentrations which might reasonably give rise to health concerns." In any event, SoCal Gas argued, the county can't prove that the metals came from the leaking well. 

SoCal Gas says if it carried out the county order as written, it could potentially be forced to clean 33,000 homes at a cost running into the tens of millions of dollars.

But Bellomo said the company must act in the face of residents' ongoing reports of headaches, dizziness and nausea.

"It's not a responsible course of action" to stop the cleaning, he said. "We can't simply say the community is restored when everybody moves back home.  That is not restoration if symptoms persist."

Beginning in late October, a ruptured natural gas well spewed billions of cubic feet of methane and other chemicals into the air until it was plugged in mid-February. The well also blew out other material, sending an oily mist of black droplets onto and into area homes, schools and businesses.

The leak was plugged in mid-February, but residents continued to complain of symptoms like headache and nausea. When the county ordered the home cleanings in May, the idea was to remove dust containing metals - including barium - similar to those contained in the heavy drilling muds used in attempts to plug the leak last fall.

 The quality of the cleaning has also been in dispute.

Bellomo said county health inspectors found that SoCal Gas' cleaning jobs fell short of county specifications in about 65 percent of the homes they checked.

A company spokeswoman insisted the work did follow the county's protocols. She said SoCal Gas hired outside contractors to do the cleaning and that the cleaning crews' supervisors, who have hazardous materials training, signed off on the work.

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