LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer filed a lawsuit Monday seeking a judge's order for Southern California Gas Co. to quickly stop a leak that began about seven weeks ago in the Porter Ranch area and has reportedly been making people ill.
"No community should have to endure what the residents of Porter Ranch have suffered from the Gas Company's continued failure to stop that leak," Feuer said during a City Hall news conference. "It's not only the odor, it's the potential health consequences from the long-term exposure to chemicals like benzene," Feuer said.
"It's the impact on daily lives for thousands of families and it's the enormous impact of a gargantuan quantity of greenhouse gas emissions from this location."
Mayor Eric Garcetti joined Feuer for the announcement, calling the gas leak discovered Oct. 23 at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility an "environmental disaster," and said the leak was discussed at the COP21 climate change conference in Paris last week.
County health officials have received reports of residents suffering from nosebleeds, dizziness, nausea and headaches linked to the leak and have ordered the Gas Co. to offer free, temporary relocation to residents in the area.
No evacuation order for the area has been issued. So far, 700 families have voluntarily left the area, and an additional 1,000 are applying for relocation services, officials said Monday.
Feuer's lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleges the Gas Co. "did not report the leak immediately as required by law, and instead waited days to inform the proper authorities, including the Certified Unified Program Agency."
Councilman Mitch Englander called the Gas Co.'s communication failures during the first few days of the leak "unacceptable."
Englander has since worked with the company to set up a storefront location where people can obtain information, set up an advisory committee that meets weekly and put in other measures to improve communication with the public.
Those steps should have happened "from day one," Englander said. "That's one of the most frustrating things of this entire crisis, is that people just don't know the information."
Feuer's lawsuit seeks a court order that would require the Gas Co. to quickly fix the leak, and to make sure the reasons for the leak are understood and measures are in place to prevent another one from happening.
Feuer also wants the Gas Co. to make sure that any systemic flaws at the Aliso Canyon storage facility and other facilities are addressed, and to be penalized for the greenhouse gas being released into the air.
The amount of methane coming from the leak is about 100,000 pounds an hour, according to the lawsuit.
Feuer said the lawsuit seeks civil penalties of up to $2,500 per day for each violation.
The Gas Co. released a statement responding to the lawsuit, saying the company "has the same urgency" as city officials, and its "highest priority is to safely stop the leak as quickly as safety will allow."
It is also important for the utility to help "affected customers" and "reduce the amount of natural gas emitting into the environment during this unfortunate situation," the Gas Co. said in a statement.
The company disputed characterizations that it dallied in informing authorities of the leak, saying the utility "immediately took steps to address the leak and inform the appropriate regulatory agencies" and communicated on a daily basis with state and local officials "from the outset."
The company added there is no way to "accurately measure the amount of natural gas being lost from the leak" until after it has been stopped and a "fact-based measurement" can be done.
"We believe any estimates published in the news media or elsewhere are premature and speculative," the Gas Co. statement said.
The utility is facing a proposed class-action lawsuit brought by a number of individuals on behalf of themselves and the citizens' group Save Porter Ranch stemming from the gas leak.
Matt Pakucko, president of Save Porter Ranch, said the city attorney's lawsuit did not go far enough.
"They're being really nice," he said. "We have an environmental disaster here and they're tiptoeing nicely."
The suit states that the leak has caused a constant flow of gases and fluids, including methane, methyl mercaptan and aromatic hydrocarbons, that have sickened hundreds of the 30,000
residents who live in Porter Ranch.
"We've turned to the courts for fairness because Porter Ranch began experiencing toxic impacts from the air contamination shortly after the massive failure of the gas injection well on Oct. 23, 2015," said plaintiffs' attorney R. Rex Parris.
The complaint -- which names the Gas Co. and its parent company, Sempra Energy, as defendants -- seeks unspecified damages and an injunction directing the Gas Co. to stop releasing contaminants into the surrounding neighborhoods.
Gas Co. officials previously apologized for the as-yet uncontained gas leak, saying they fell short of expectations in its communication efforts.
The company is drilling a relief well that will allow the utility to permanently cap the leaking tank.
The leak began in October when an injection well sustained a massive failure and blowout.
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