LOS ANGELES (CN) - Residents hit by a massive gas leak in the LA suburbs complained Wednesday that a SoCalGas attorney had a hand in recommending an independent panel that will decide how to mitigate the crisis.
South Coast Air Quality Management District has petitioned the administrative law panel - an engineer, an attorney, a doctor, and two public members - to force SoCalGas, which owns the leaking storage field, to comply with state air-quality rules.
The district reappointed current chairman Edward Camarena, attorney Julie Prussack and their alternates Douglas Lofgren and Thomas McCabe in May 2015. SoCalGas attorney Robert Wyman of Latham & Watkins was on the five-member advisory committee that recommended the two reappointments.
Porter Ranch resident Matt Pakucko was the second witness to raise the issue during testimony at the South Coast Air Quality Management District hearing in the district's Diamond Bar offices on Wednesday.
"It appears that one of the respondent SoCalGas' attorneys was actually involved in appointing this very hearing board. We hope that any potential conflicts of interest in this appointment do not influence your decision," Pakucko said.
Wyman responded to Pakucko's concerns at the court-like proceedings, telling the five panel members he would withdraw from the committee if the board believed there was a conflict of interest.
He said LA County Supervisor Michael Antonovich had appointed him in 2003 and that the district's counsel had written an opinion finding that there would be no ethical issues if he took on the role.
Wyman said that the hearing board advisory committee was established by the state Legislature. He had asked the district to consider whether he should be disqualified from serving on the advisory committee and whether any member of the board would have to recuse themselves, he said.
Wyman added that the advisory board "does not actually select board members," but rather reviewed the candidates.
"The document that is going to be circulated to you is a response from district counsel which very clearly articulates the absence of any ethical constraint or concern from my participation on the advisory board committee," Wyman said.
While hearing board members David Holtzman and Patricia Byrd said they had no objection to the residents raising concerns, Camarena was less magnanimous.
"This is the first time anyone has raised the issue that was raised this morning and last Saturday," Camarena said, noting that every one of the 5,000 cases he had presided over in the last 20 years was in the public record.
"You'll see that Mr. Wyman was not victorious on one of his important cases" Camarena said. "I'm offended by the public comments. Let's go on."
Porter Ranch resident Paul Hunt testified that no one objected to Wyman's appointment to the advisory committee but that the "issue is that he's sitting here today."
He said it was "offensive that there's a possibility that somebody would influence this board maintaining its positions. I believe that should be taken into consideration and he should not be here."
Byrd said that she had "no problem" with the public raising the issue.
"You get to do that. We all get to do that. We all have to say what affects us. All I wanted to say was I have great respect for those who sit before us, as well as the members of this board," Byrd said. "We have our own moral barometer. We are here to serve the public and we feel very strongly about that."
Previous hearings to consider an abatement order were held in Granada Hills, just a few miles from the Aliso Canyon leak site. Over the objections of residents and officials the latest hearing was held at the agency's office in Diamond Bar, 55 miles east of Porter Ranch.
With opinions from LA officials, including Mayor Eric Garcetti, the board decided to continue the hearing and postpone a final decision on the order until Jan. 23 at the Woodland Hills Hilton - a location closer to Porter Ranch residents.
"We need to make a decision," Camarena said. "We've heard from quite a few people. We've heard the complaints. We understand the situation is unbearable and it's been going on too long."
Prussack said she wants SoCalGas to allow a third party to inspect the wells.
"It could be the initial inspections are conducted by a third party - something that gives comfort to this community and surrounding communities that this will not occur again in one of the other wells," Prussack said.
Wednesday's hearing concluded in the afternoon with the board hearing public comments through the morning.
The district's proposed order for abatement calls for SoCalGas to provide around-the-clock monitoring of the well site with an infrared camera. Methane gas is not visible to the human eye.
The order also asks for the energy company to post daily air-monitoring data on its website.
To minimize the leak, the proposed order demands that SoCalGas cease all gas injection at the storage field until the well is sealed. A plan to burn the gas was put on hold amid concerns it could cause an explosion.
The district is asking SoCalGas to study the health impacts of the leaks to communities impacted by the leak. Residents have complained of nose bleeds, nausea, dizziness, aches, pains and fatigue.
Residents first complained about the leak at SoCalGas' Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in Northridge on Oct. 23
At its peak, the well was spewing pollution comparable to daily emissions of 7 million cars or six coal-fired power plants. About 1,200 tons of greenhouse pollution are being released into the atmosphere per day, according to court records.
The Aliso Canyon facility provides energy to 21 million people and 500 communities and has the capacity for 86 billion cubic feet of natural gas. Of the 111 natural gas wells at Aliso Canyon, 48 were drilled in 1953.
SoCalGas insists that natural gas is not harmful, but contains foul-smelling odorants used to detect gas leaks. The company is offering temporary relocation to the thousands of Porter Ranch residents, and has offered to install plug-in air purifiers to families who choose to stay.
The company said as of Wednesday it had drilled 8,100 feet to create a relief well. The energy company says it plans to intercept the well and then pump heavy mud and fluids to plug it.
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