Crime & Justice

Judge approves $4 million plea deal in SoCal Gas Porter Ranch blowout

Porter Ranch resident Michelle Theriault takes part in a press conference on a gas leak in Porter Ranch after a regular Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015.
Porter Ranch resident Michelle Theriault takes part in a press conference on a gas leak in Porter Ranch after a regular Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Attorneys representing Porter Ranch residents were unsuccessful Tuesday in their attempt to derail a $4 million plea deal negotiated by prosecutors with Southern California Gas Company that allows the company to plead no contest to a single misdemeanor charge in a massive four-month gas leak.

Superior Court Judge Alan S. Rosenfield accepted the company's no contest plea to one misdemeanor count of failing to inform authorities of the release of hazardous natural gas over three days last October, said attorney Paul Kiesel, who is coordinating the civil plaintiffs suing SoCal Gas.

"The plaintiffs team is certainly exploring taking an appeal of the court’s decision not to include restitution as a claim for the victims of Porter Ranch," Kiesel said.

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Three other misdemeanor criminal charges were dismissed, including one of releasing the gas, and two additional counts of waiting too long to report the release.

A well at SoCal Gas's Aliso Canyon gas storage field leaked uncontrolled for four months beginning in late October 2015, forcing two school campuses and some 8,000 households to leave the area temporarily.

The residents, all plaintiffs in separate civil cases against SoCal Gas, had argued that the plea deal was inadequate because under California's victims rights law, it should have included restitution of their financial losses due to the gas leak.

"For the judge to impose a sentence that does not include restitution would be invalid and unconstitutional," said Brian Panish, an attorney who represents some of the 7,225 individual plaintiffs who have sued over the leak.

They also objected to the deal's dismissal of the count alleging the discharge of hazardous natural gas.
    
The plea deal calls for the company to pay fines, hire additional staff to monitor the Aliso Canyon Gas Storage Facility and to install new equipment to detect leaks of natural gas. The cost of the measures and fines is nearly $4 million. It did not directly compensate any victims.

People affected by the natural gas release are not entitled to restitution under California's 2008 victims' rights law, District Attorney Jackie Lacey and the office's environmental crimes staffers said in court papers filed last week.
   
Prosecutors argued that the deal should go through.
    
In court papers, the DA's office said that the residents' economic losses have been covered by hundreds of millions of dollars in payments from SoCal Gas. It also said the victims' rights law approved by voters in 2008 does not allow plaintiffs in a civil case to intervene as victims in the criminal prosecution. Lacey's office issued a statement that it was satisfied with the deal.

“We are glad to have this resolved," SoCal Gas spokeswoman Melissa Bailey said in an email statement. "SoCalGas remains committed to working with our regulators and to complying with laws and regulations applicable to the Aliso Canyon facility,"