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Emotional Crowd Hijacks Aliso Canyon Meeting

LOS ANGELES ( — A raucous crowd calling for the permanent closure of the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage field after a months-long well leak that prompted mass evacuations cut short a public meeting on Wednesday, refusing to allow more comment from speakers who favor reopening the field.

As the heads of two state agencies sat stolidly on stage, the facilitator of the scheduled public meeting in the San Fernando Valley declared that the atmosphere was just too heated and ended the gathering less than two hours after it began.

"Shut it all down! Shut it all down!" the audience of around 300 chanted at one point.

The first of two hearings was organized by the California Department of Conservation. Officials still plan to go ahead with a second public meeting on Thursday night.

"We want to hear from the public," said Teresa Schilling with the Department of Conservation. "It's in their community and this is an important part of taking a look to make sure that things are safe."

Porter Ranch residents like Heidi Tortorici of Northridge, who claims she is partially blind because of the leak, argued vehemently that Aliso Canyon must be shut down.

"It was the most excruciating experience we've endured," Tortorici said.

With more than 100 deep underground wells, Aliso Canyon is the largest natural gas storage site in the West and is considered critical to the Los Angeles area for home heating and to power gas-fired electricity plants during energy spikes.

However, the Southern California Gas Co. facility has been crippled more than a year since a blowout discovered in October 2015 released tons of methane into the air for four months, drove 8,000 families from their homes in and around the Porter Ranch neighborhood and led to mass complaints of health issues ranging from headaches to cancer.

Nancy Hernandez of Chatsworth said her children are still suffering.

"This is about our health, our children, we've been through so much and we live in fear," Hernandez said.

Among those in attendance was activist Erin Brockovich. At the meeting, residents spoke about those issues and so did representatives of state and local government, who promised to fight reopening of the field until it is clear what caused the leak.

"I've seen the nosebleeds and the nausea. I've seen the pets you've lost and the family members that have been injured," said new state Sen. Henry Stern, D-Los Angeles.

Stern's bill, SB146, would require that a probe of the root cause of the leak be completed before reopening can be considered.

Officials from the Los Angeles County fire and public health departments called for the completion of studies on earthquake risks and the health impact of the leak before reopening can be considered.

Less than a third of the 113 wells at the aging former oil field have passed rigorous inspections ordered after the blowout. The remaining ones have been taken out of service and must pass state-mandated tests within a year or be permanently sealed.

Public comments were being accepted until Feb. 6 and the state could sign off as soon as this month to allow use of the approved wells to store more gas — though the company would be restricted to about a third of the facility's storage capacity, according to the state Department of Conservation said.

However, blackouts predicted without the facility in full operation have not occurred. Many nearby residents who endured stench, ailments and frustration have demanded a permanent shutdown.

That sentiment was clear during Wednesday night's meeting. The crowd booed and even shouted down speakers such as Tracy Hernandez with the Los Angeles County Business Federation who urged reopening of the field on grounds that it would provide much-needed and environmentally friendly energy to businesses and poor county residents.

"We strongly support the safe reopening," Hernandez said amid deafening boos.

Things became so heated that a planned presentation on safety reviews and state investigations was put off. Meeting facilitator Caelan McGee ended the evening when the audience refused to allow pro-reopening speakers to finish their remarks.

Timothy J. Sullivan, executive director of the California Public Utility Commission and Ken Harris, state oil and gas supervisor for the Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources sat stolidly during the events.

SoCal Gas released a statement Wednesday night that read:

"SoCalGas supports public participation as an opportunity to collect meaningful feedback and input. Consistent with the process outlined in Senate Bill 380, we support the public's participation in this week's public hearings.

"These public meetings mark an important step in the State's comprehensive safety review process and are one of the conditions necessary for us to resume injections at Aliso Canyon.

"As stated by the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources when these meetings were announced, Aliso Canyon has undergone extensive inspections under stringent standards over the last year, including thorough, multi-step testing conducted on each well at the field."

(TM and © Copyright 2017 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2016 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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