LOS ANGELES (CN) - The Environmental Law Foundation claims Southern California Gas Co. injected so much natural gas into its giant underground storage field, 1 mile deep under Los Angeles, that the gas migrated into the city's drinking water and polluted it with chemicals that cause cancer and birth defects.
The environmental group claims the San Diego-based gas company pumped "increasingly greater volumes of natural gas" into the 240-acre formation, 6,000 feet deep under Playa del Rey, from 1956 until the mid-1980s, though it knew of the environmental damage it would cause as early as 1942.
It claims the gas company polluted drinking water with carcinogenic benzene, toluene and ethylbenzene.
"The natural gas is stored in a subsurface oil field, located 6,000 feet below ground," according to the Superior Court complaint. "The storage facility is a geological subsection of a much larger oilfield; the subsection storage area is approximately 240 acres in size. When the natural gas is injected into the subsurface storage facility, it mixes with gases that are naturally present in oilfields, including chemicals benzene, toluene and ethyl benzene ('BTEX'). Benzene, toluene and ethylbenzene are chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and/or birth defects."
The Environmental Law Foundation claims the West Coast and Santa Monica sub-basins of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board's Los Angeles Basin Plan have been contaminated.
As SoCalGas stored ever greater volumes of natural gas there, the increased pressure caused the gas "to migrate outside of the 240-acre boundary and throughout the larger oil reservoir," the complaint states.
"SCG has been aware of this phenomenon since 1942, when it began gas storage operations at Playa del Rey. Moreover, when SCG began expanding its operations in 1956, SCG's engineers drafted papers warning SCG that natural gas stored at a pressure of 1,000 pounds per square inch ('psi') or greater will migrate outside of the storage area. Furthermore, the facility operates like a stopgap, such that when pressure is decreased the gas does not return. Regardless, SCG continued to increase the pressure of its stored gas," according to the complaint.
SoCalGas public relations manager Denise King told Courthouse News the lawsuit has "no merit."
"SoCalGas has safely operated the Playa del Rey underground storage field since the early 1950s under the oversight of numerous regulatory agencies, including the California State Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources, the California Public Utilities Commission, OSHA, SCAQMD and the Los Angeles Fire Department," King said.
"We constantly monitor all active wells at the Playa del Rey Storage Facility, and also do leakage surveys with instruments that detect minute amounts of gas. Our monitoring procedures and nearly 50 years of experience at this field give us confidence that it is safe and not a threat to California's drinking water. Safety of our employees, our customers and the communities we serve is our top priority."
In its lawsuit, the Environmental Law Foundation claims the permit from the Department of Conservation caps the pressure at the storage facility at 1,750 pounds per square inch.
"However, the pressure is much greater in other sections of the oilfield where gas has migrated, including as far west as the Venice Peninsula," the complaint states.
"The high pressure causes gas to vertically migrate from the storage field towards the surface. The gas finds natural and manmade conduits to move vertically, using any point of passage to seek lower pressure horizons. The most common conduits are SCG's active and abandoned wells. The gas also seeks natural fractures and fissures in the earth to move vertically."
The environmental group says three "hydrocarbon zones" - the 6,000-foot deep subsurface oil field where natural gas is stored, and two shallower zones - leak toxic chemicals, including BTEX, which move into a "fresh water zone" above.
"The base (deepest point) of the fresh water zone varies from approximately 1,400 to 800 feet below ground surface and extends upward to the surface throughout the region," the complaint states. "Within the fresh water zone is groundwater, which includes but is not limited to aquifers, aquicludes and continuously saturated soils. Under Proposition 65, all groundwater that has been designated as suitable for domestic use (its 'beneficial use') under the Porter-Cologne Act and the region's Basin Plans, is to be protected as a source of drinking water. ... SCG has not constructed nor abandoned its wells in a manner that protects groundwater in the fresh water zone and therefore BTEX that is discharged or released from SCG's wells passes or will likely pass into the groundwater."
Of SoCalGas' 70 active and 100 abandoned wells, only "a portion of these wells are located within the 240 acre permitted storage facility," the group says.
It claims six storage wells are leaking: Reigle, Covington, Stewart, SoCal 8, Fast and Harlan.
"Despite defendants' knowledge that the six wells discharge or release toxic chemicals known to the state to cause cancer and/or birth defects, they continue to operate their facility and the six wells in such a manner that these chemicals pass or threaten to pass into protected sources of drinking water," the group says.
It claims that SoCalGas knows very well that its Playa del Rey storage facility leaks millions of cubic feet of gas into the environment every year.
The Environmental Law Foundation seeks an injunction and statutory penalties of $2,500 per day for violations of California's Health and Safety Code.
Its lead counsel is David Rosen.
The Environmental Law Foundation did not respond to a request for comment.