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Criminal Charges Filed|Over LA Gas Leak

LOS ANGELES (CN) - SoCalGas is now facing criminal charges for not immediately contacting state regulators about the massive and foul smelling methane gas leak at its Aliso Canyon storage field.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey filed a misdemeanor criminal complaint against Southern California Gas Company on Tuesday, claiming that between Oct. 23 and Oct. 26, 2015, the energy company failed to contact the California Emergency Management Agency about the leak.

Hazardous material including methane, methyl mercaptan, butyl mercaptan, benzene and butane were leaking from the well, the DA says.

If convicted, SoCalGas faces fines of $25,000 a day for each day that it failed to notify the California Office of Emergency Services and $1,000 for each day of air pollution violations, Lacey said.

Last week, the state of California filed an enforcement action seeking stiffer penalties of $440,000 per day for each day of the leak. As of Wednesday, the environmental disaster has continued for 104 days.

"While we recognize that neither the criminal charges nor the civil lawsuits will offer the residents of Los Angeles County a complete solution, it is important that Southern California Gas Co. be held responsible for its criminal actions," Lacey said in a statement.

"We will do everything we can as prosecutors to help ensure that the Aliso Canyon facility is brought into compliance. I believe we can best serve our community using the sanctions available through a criminal conviction to prevent similar public health threats in the future," the prosecutor added.

SoCalGas spokeswoman Kristine Lloyd said that the company had been notified of the criminal complaint and is reviewing the filing.

"We have been working with regulatory agencies to mitigate the odors associated with the natural gas leak and to abate the gas leak as quickly as safety allows. We will defend ourselves vigorously through the judicial process," Lloyd wrote in an email.

The lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court lodges four misdemeanor counts against SoCalGas, including three counts of failing to report the release of hazardous pollution and one count of discharging air contaminants.

California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in January and the state Senate is moving forward with a bill calling for an immediate moratorium on any new injections of natural gas and use of aging wells at the facility.

Dozens of civil lawsuits have been filed, including demands from the city and county of Los Angeles.

Residents in the adjacent Porter Ranch community first complained about the leak at the natural gas storage facility in Northridge on Oct. 23.

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

But citing state and federal data, the SoCalGas website attempts to "put this event's contribution to the amount of CO2 equivalents to the atmosphere in perspective" and noted it has reduced emissions by 65 percent.

Citing data from the California Air Resources Board, SoCalGas says that from Oct. 23, 2015 to Jan. 26, 2016, the Aliso Canyon Gas leak emitted 2.2 million metric tons of pollution.

Electricity generation accounts for 90.6 million metric tons of all of California's carbon dioxide emissions, SoCalGas says. In addressing the emissions, however, the gas company does not compare findings from other sources of pollution over a similar three-month period.

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. Residents have complained of nausea, dizziness, headaches, nose bleeds and fatigue.

As of Jan. 31, SoCalGas said it had relocated 4,500 households and that 1,066 are in the process of moving into temporary accommodations.

SoCalGas began drilling a relief well to stop the leak on Dec. 4, and said the process should be complete by late February.

Deputy District Attorneys Yael Massry and Daniel Wright in the Environmental Law Section are the lead prosecutors in the criminal complaint. The Los Angeles County Fire Department is heading the investigation into the energy company.

SoCalGas representatives are scheduled to appear in court on Feb. 17 for an arraignment hearing.

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