LOS ANGELES — A utility that owns a well that leaked massive amounts of natural gas and drove thousands of families from their Los Angeles homes pleaded no contest to a criminal charge Tuesday as part of a $4 million settlement with prosecutors.
The deal requires Southern California Gas Co. to adopt a leak-monitoring system at its Aliso Canyon facility that goes beyond federal and state requirements, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said.
“The protections put in place by this agreement create a safer facility for its employees, the environment and the surrounding communities,” Lacey said in a statement.
The company pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of failing to immediately report the gas leak to state officials when it was discovered Oct. 23. The utility waited three days before notifying the state Office of Emergency Services, prosecutors said.
The well that wasn’t plugged until February led more than 8,000 families to move out of their homes in the Porter Ranch area of the San Fernando Valley. Many experienced headaches, nosebleeds and nausea during the event that scientists said was the largest known release of climate-changing methane in U.S. history.
Health experts attributed the maladies to an odorant added to methane to make it detectable and, possibly, to trace chemicals included in natural gas.
Residents and some environmental and consumer groups have called for the shutdown of Aliso Canyon, which is the largest natural gas storage facility west of the Mississippi River, saying it is not necessary to provide power to Southern California.
The company and some state agencies, however, have said it’s essential in providing gas to fuel power plants during energy spikes in summer and providing home heating in winter. They warned of blackouts this summer and in the future if it doesn’t return to full operation. So far, those haven’t happened.
As the state investigates the cause of the leak, SoCalGas has been in the process of putting more than 100 aging underground wells through a battery of tough tests that only about a fifth have passed to date, according to state records.
SoCalGas issued a statement saying the settlement was “another important step in our efforts to put the leak behind us and to win back the trust of the community.”
The settlement includes the maximum fine of $75,000, plus a penalty of $232,000 and more than $245,000 for a hazardous materials investigation by Los Angeles County firefighters.
The financial brunt of the settlement, though, will come from the installation and maintenance of an infrared leak-detection system that will cost more than $1 million and require more than $2 million to staff and monitor with six full-time employees over the next three years.
Alexandra Nagy, an organizer with Food & Water Watch, said the monitors will do nothing to stop any future leaks.
“No fine can make SoCalGas’ aging Aliso Canyon Storage Facility safe,” Nagy said in a statement. “This fine is barely a slap on the wrist for SoCalGas, whose parent company made $10 billion in revenue last year.”