LA County Sues to Stop Reopening of Aliso Canyon After Gas Leak as Covered by Law360

Law360, New York (March 9, 2017, 2:37 PM EST) — Los Angeles County sued state regulators in a California court on Wednesday demanding SoCalGas undertake further safety and environmental reviews before reopening a facility that was the site of the largest gas leak in U.S. history.

In a complaint filed in California Superior Court, the county alleges the state’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources, or DOGGR, prematurely concluded without proper environmental review that the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in the San Fernando Valley was safe before looking into seismic risks and without waiting for the results of an investigation into what caused more than 100,000 metric tons of hazardous natural gas to leak into the nearby Porter Ranch community.

“Despite the risk of another disastrous leak, [regulators] intend to authorize reinjections of gas at high pressure into the Aliso Canyon facility without complying with their legislatively mandated duties,” the complaint says. “They have not completed the comprehensive safety review required by [the Senate], have not addressed the risks of failure at Aliso Canyon and have not completed the root-cause analysis.”

The county is seeking a court order that would block the reopening of the facility until the DOGGR completes and makes public an environmental impact report pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act, requesting no gas injections take place until those obligations have been met.

The suit asks regulators “to perform their jobs” under the California laws that were “enacted to protect the residents of Los Angeles County, and the Porter Ranch community in particular, from another catastrophic leak at the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility, and to protect the environment of this state from further harm and degradation,” the county said.

“State regulators must get to the bottom of what caused the Aliso Canyon blowout, provide the public with results of that investigation, and conduct a public environmental review process that considers alternatives and mitigations,” county supervisor Kathryn Barger said in a statement about the complaint. “The county’s lawsuit seeks to ensure that DOGGR fully complies with its obligation to certify that the Aliso Canyon facility can be operated safely and that a devastating well failure and gas leak can never happen again.”

The leak at the center of the suit dates back to October 2015, when for nearly four months, natural gas leaked into the surrounding community of Porter Ranch, leading the county’s board of supervisors to declare a state of emergency and relocate thousands of residents to temporary housing, the complaint says. Afterward, the governor and the DOGGR put a moratorium on natural gas injections into the facility until regulators conducted a safety review of the entire facility and then addressed the risks of failure identified in that review.

The California Public Utilities Commission also opened an investigation into the facility.

The cause of the leak is still a mystery after 16 months of investigation, the complaint said, and analysis is ongoing with no end in sight.

“The root-cause analysis is central to the comprehensive safety review ordered by the governor and the Legislature,” the complaint said, adding that “without knowing the cause of the leak, [regulators] cannot know if it is safe to pump natural gas at high pressure into the facility.”

The county argues the DOGGR has also ignored seismic risks from the Santa Susana Fault that crosses through the Aliso Canyon field, as well as recommendations from the county’s oil well experts to install safety measures that would prevent well failure.

“The people living near this facility should not have to live in fear of another major catastrophe,” the county said in the suit.

The Aliso Canyon facility, the largest of SoCalGas’ natural gas facilities, contains 115 wells and has a capacity of 86.2 billion cubic feet of natural gas.

A representative for the DOGGR told Law360 the department does not comment on pending litigation.

Counsel information for the department was not available.

The county is represented by Mary C. Wickham, Lawrence L. Hafetz and Scott Kuhn of the Office of the County Counsel, and Louis R. Miller, Mira Hashmall and Amnon Siegel of Miller Barondess LLP.

The case is the County of Los Angeles v. California Department of Conservation, Division of Oil Gas and Geothermal Resources et al., case number BS 16 8 3 8J, in the Superior Court of the State of California for the County of Los Angeles Central Division.