Los Angeles DA files charges against utility over gas leak

Los Angeles prosecutors filed misdemeanour criminal charges Tuesday against a utility for failing to immediately report a natural gas leak that has been gushing nonstop for nearly 15 weeks.

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District Attorney Jackie Lacey said the charges aren't a solution to the problem, but Southern California Gas Co. needs to be held responsible for the leak that has uprooted more than 4,400 families.

The charges came the same day the state attorney general joined a long line of others in suing the gas company for the blowout that has spewed more than 2 million tons of climate-changing methane since October.

Lawmakers in Congress have urged the U.S. secretary of energy to investigate the leak, and federal regulators are crafting new safety standards for underground natural gas storage facilities.

The criminal complaint charges the company with three counts of failing to report the release of a hazardous material and one count of discharge of air contaminants.

The company said in a statement that it will vigorously defend itself in court. Arraignment is scheduled for Feb. 17.

If convicted, the company could be fined up to $1,000 per day for air pollution violations and up to $25,000 for each of the three days it didn't notify the state Office of Emergency Services of the leak.

The company said it discovered the leak Oct. 23 and notified state gas and oil regulators.

But it failed to let state emergency officials know until Oct. 26, Attorney General Kamala Harris said in the latest of more than two dozen lawsuits filed against SoCalGas.

The leak has created a public health and statewide environmental emergency, Harris said. The lawsuit, which doesn't specify damages, says the company created a nuisance and violated health and safety codes and the state's unfair competition law.

A spokeswoman said the company doesn't comment on pending litigation and was focused on stopping the leak, which it expects to plug by the end of the month.

SoCalGas said it paid $50 million through December to try to cap the leak and relocate people, but the number of families it has relocated since then has soared and work at the leaking well continues.

It is also facing potential class-action lawsuits from residents and businesses as well as suits from regional air regulators and city and county authorities.

Harris, a Democrat running for U.S. Senate, is the first state official to sue, though her lawsuit incorporates elements of lawsuits filed by the city and county of Los Angeles.

Several state agencies are investigating the blowout and have issued orders to the gas company to stop it and turn over records of the 60-year-old well and others from the field that is the largest natural gas storage facility in the West.

The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration got involved for the first time Tuesday, saying it is working to propose new regulations for gas storage and directing operators to "inspect and take immediate actions to ensure the safety of underground natural gas storage facilities across the country."

State regulators are investigating the cause of the leak, but they said they won't know until the well is plugged, which is expected by the end of the month.

Local residents have reported symptoms including headaches, nosebleeds and rashes, among other woes.

Public health officials have blamed the maladies on odorant added to make the gas detectable. They have said the leak - mostly methane but including trace elements of the carcinogen benzene - is not expected to cause long-term health problems.

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Associated Press writer Ellen Knickmeyer contributed to this story from San Francisco.



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