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California Wants Millions for Methane Leak

LOS ANGELES (CN) - California on Tuesday sued SoCalGas for $440,000 per day in fines for its negligent response to the massive methane gas leak that has displaced thousands of people in the San Fernando Valley.

Tuesday was the 96th day of the leak. At the maximum fine of $440,000 per day, SoCalGas could already be on the hook for $42.2 million in fines.

California and the South Coast Air Quality Management District sued Southern California Gas in Superior Court as a public nuisance, demanding it pay the price for the environmental disaster through civil penalties.

California accuses SoCalGas of negligently operating its Aliso Canyon storage facility, negligently designing the casing of the leaking well SS-25, and failing to properly respond to the leak.

The state seeks $10,000 to $250,000 per violation for "each and every day of violation," on six causes of action, for a total of up to $440,000 in civil penalties per day.

The complaint was filed by the Air Quality Management District's general counsel Kurt Weise, who was not available for comment Tuesday evening.

SoCalGas spokeswoman Kristine Lloyd said the company does not comment on pending litigation.

SoCalGas discovered the leak on Oct. 23. The state says the gas company caused "actual injury" and "great bodily injury" by violating four sections of the Health and Safety Code, and an SCAQMD rule on air pollution, all punishable by civil penalties.

SoCalGas insists that the gas is not harmful, but residents complain that a foul-smelling odorant used to detect leaks, and other harmful chemicals, have made them sick. Nausea, dizziness, headaches, nose bleeds and rashes are some of the reported symptoms.

Gas companies odorize natural gas with mercaptans, the same chemical that skunks use to protect themselves.

SoCalGas has offered temporary relocation to thousands of Porter Ranch residents who live adjacent to the storage field. But Los Angeles officials say communities in Granada Hills, Chatsworth and Northridge have also been affected .

"In addition to harming persons living, working, and attending school in the communities near the facility, SoCalGas' leak has contributed to global warming by emitting billions of cubic feet of methane into the atmosphere," the Tuesday lawsuit states.

Methane is a greenhouse gas many times more potent than the most common form of greenhouse pollution, carbon dioxide. Atmospheric methane "warms the earth by absorbing heat energy from the sun and slowing the rate at which heat energy escapes," according to the complaint. "SoCalGas' methane leak from Well SS-25 has increased the risk of harm in the future from global warming."

The new lawsuit follows an independent panel's approval on Saturday of the air district's request for a stipulated order of abatement.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency this month and the state Senate introduced a bill calling for an immediate moratorium on any new injections of natural gas and use of aging wells at the facility.

Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday also called for a moratorium on new wells until the city is sure existing wells are safe.

Dozens of lawsuits have been filed, including demands from the City and County of Los Angeles.

Residents first complained about the leak at the natural gas storage facility in Northridge on Oct. 23. More than 2,000 complaints have been lodged.

By some calculations, the well was spewing pollution comparable to the daily emissions of 7 million cars or six coal-fired power plants.

"Natural gas has leaked from well SS-25 at an estimated rate of up to approximately 127,868 pounds per hour," the Tuesday filing states.

The Aliso Canyon facility provides energy to 21 million people and 500 communities and has the capacity of 86 billion cubic feet of natural gas. Of the 115 natural gas wells at Aliso, 48 are aging and were drilled in 1953.

Based on an average of four people per household, Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch Englander said he believes more than 12,000 people have been displaced by the leak.

About 3,600 households have already evacuated, but more than 2,445 are waiting to be relocated, Englander said Tuesday.

SoCalGas began drilling a relief well to stop the leak on Dec. 4, and said last week that the project is ahead of schedule. It said the well should be sealed by late February or sooner.

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