SAN DIEGO (CN) - A firefighters pension plan sued Sempra Energy on Tuesday, claiming its mishandling of the massive methane gas leak in the San Fernando Valley will cost the company and its shareholders billions of dollars.
The Firemen's Retirement System of St. Louis filed the shareholder derivative suit against Sempra, its subsidiary Southern California Gas and 21 company directors and officers in Superior Court. The firemen say Sempra did not do enough to prevent or contain the environmental disaster at the Aliso Canyon underground natural gas facility.
"These wrongs have already cost the Sempra Companies more than $50 million in attempted remediation efforts, and experts expect the Sempra Companies to pay billions of dollars more," the 24-page complaint states.
Sempra also faces billions of dollars of potential liability for state and federal law violations, according to the complaint.
SoCalGas discovered a ruptured well spewing methane gas at the storage field on Oct. 23 last year. The leak spewed tens of thousands of metric tons of methane into the air for 112 days. The ruptured 60-year-old well was not plugged until Feb. 11. State regulators last week confirmed that it had been sealed and shut down.
The firefighters say it took the companies until December to drill a relief well, and SoCalGas was slow to relocate the thousands of residents in nearby neighborhoods, including Porter Ranch, Chatsworth, Granada Hills and Northridge.
SoCalGas said the methane was not harmful, but residents said the foul-smelling mercaptan odorant added to detect leaks, and other harmful chemicals, made them sick. Residents complained of nausea, dizziness, headaches, nosebleeds and fatigue.
In addition to methane, residents were exposed to benzene, toluene, hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide, the complaint states.
"To make matters worse, these toxic gases and chemicals have likely also now leaked into the local aquifer, which may lead to local crop destruction as well as additional environmental harm," according to the lawsuit.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in January. SoCalGas faces dozens of civil lawsuits as well as court actions from the state and City of Los Angeles. Los Angeles County prosecutors have filed a criminal complaint against the energy company.
According to the firefighters' lawsuit, the well had been "slowly leaking for over thirty-six years" even though SoCalGas obtained rate increases five years ago to replace leaking valves at the natural gas facility.
The well had been in operation since the 1950s and Sempra and state regulators knew in 1979 that the company needed to replace the safety valve but concluded that finding parts was too difficult. When the well ruptured in October there was no safety valve to prevent the massive leak, the firefighters say.
"The well, therefore, was a time bomb that Sempra had to know would eventually go off," the complaint states.
The Sempra board "failed in its fiduciary obligations to its stockholders and failed to deliver Sempra services safely," the complaint adds.
Seeking damages, restitution, disgorgement of profits and other remedies, the plaintiffs are represented by Brian Robbins with Robbins Arroyo in San Diego.
Sempra did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.