Environment & Science

SoCal Gas remains under AQMD nuisance abatement order

Officials from the Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources and California Public Utilities Commission demonstrate an infra-ref camera during a media event at the Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility near Porter Ranch on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. The cameras are part of several new safety enhancements being made at the facility following a massive natural gas leak at the facility in 2015.
Officials from the Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources and California Public Utilities Commission demonstrate an infra-ref camera during a media event at the Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility near Porter Ranch on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. The cameras are part of several new safety enhancements being made at the facility following a massive natural gas leak at the facility in 2015.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

(Clarification: In an earlier version of this report, AQMD  hearing board member Nate Holden was quoted, saying he heard an attorney for SoCal Gas state the company did not want to do a study into the health effects of Aliso Canyon natural gas leak . Holden said he heard the statement on a recording made during a pre-hearing conference on July 13, 2016. KPCC obtained a copy of that recording, and it contains no such statement. AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood said  Holden had misunderstood the discussion that was taking place. Holden did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment. This story has been changed to reflect this development.)

Regulators overseeing air quality in the L.A. Basin decided Wednesday to keep in place an abatement order over Southern California Gas Company and its massive gas storage reservoir near Porter Ranch.

The order is set to remain in effect through September or whenever the company funds a study of how the nation's largest-ever uncontrolled release of natural gas has affected nearby residents.  The order acts as a sort of probationary status on the company, because any violation of the order or new leaks could result in the air board extending its authority into the future.

Having the order remain in place could complicate the company's efforts to persuade the public and state officials that it should be permitted to resume gas injections into the underground gas reservoir.

The decision, on a 4-1 vote of the South Coast Air Quality Management District's independent hearing board, followed testimony from Porter Ranch residents. They said the health study was needed to better understand why they continue to report nausea, headaches and other illnesses that they say began with the four-month long rupture of a natural gas well at the nearby Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility. The well poured natural gas, which was mostly methane but carried other toxic chemicals, into the atmosphere from late October 2015 through mid-February, and caused some 8,000 families to leave their homes temporarily.

While the massive gas leak was still active, SoCal Gas agreed to provide "reasonable" funds for a health study related to leak. It was part of stipulated nuisance abatement order negotiated with the AQMD setting out what SoCal Gas would have to do to stop the harms caused by the leak.

As the months wore on and the leaking gas well was sealed, SoCal Gas failed to fund the study, prompting the AQMD to take the demand to Los Angeles Superior Court.

An attorney for SoCal Gas, Robert Wyman Jr., argued that the health study was no longer part of the abatement order. Wyman said that when the AQMD staff asked a superior court judge to order the company to fund the health study, it removed the  study from the AQMD's to-do list of tasks necessary for SoCal Gas to end the abatement order.

Members of the AQMD hearing board disagreed, responding that SoCal Gas, in offering about $300,000 to fund the study, was acting in bad faith because district officials said the amount was not sufficient to perform a comprehensive inquiry into the local health problems caused by the gas well blowout.

"I believe that respondent has not acted in good faith," said hearing board Chairman Edward Camarena. Despite faulting the utility over the health study, Camarena said he did not believe the board had the authority to extend the abatement order conditions and voted against an extension. The other four members voted for it.

After the vote, Wyman said the company's estimate for the study was based on an AQMD staffer's proposal in January 2016 that the study would last about four months.

"To suggest that the gas company has not worked in good faith is completely contrary to the record in this case," Wyman said.

The study SoCal Gas offered to fund in May is more extensive than a health risk assessment, company spokesman Chris Gilbride said in a statement. He said it was based on "The consistent practice of the AQMD in requiring previous health studies and on the testimony of the then AQMD Executive Officer who testified under oath last January that the health study would take three to four months, no longer than that. We confirmed the reasonableness of this proposal by reaching out to health consultants in the region.”