Judge won’t block California gas facility from reopening

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By BRIAN MELLEY

Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) – A judge on Friday refused to block a Los Angeles natural gas storage facility from reopening a year and a half after a major blowout shut it down and spewed methane that forced thousands of people from their homes.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Wiley said he didn’t have the authority to stop Southern California Gas Co. from restarting operations at Aliso Canyon because of rules passed by lawmakers. State regulators last week allowed the company to pump gas into underground storage wells after an overhaul and rigorous testing.

The facility above the San Fernando Valley has been largely out of commission since an old well failed in October 2015 and unleashed methane for nearly four months, driving residents from 8,000 homes.

The blowout released the largest-known amount of climate-changing methane in U.S. history and led to widespread complaints of nosebleeds, nausea, headaches and symptoms that persisted even after the leak was capped last year.

Wiley said he understood opponents’ arguments that an extensive safety review had not taken into account the risk of an earthquake. He acknowledged that the reopening was important to residents of Porter Ranch and surrounding suburbs but that lawmakers had taken authority away from Superior Court judges to overturn orders by the California Public Utilities Commission.

“So what’s my power?” Wiley said. “Zero. I have zero power. Because in the 1950s the Legislature said, ‘Hands off. The PUC owns this problem.'”

Skip Miller, a lawyer for Los Angeles County, disagreed with the judge and said he would seek ask a state appeals court to block the facility from reopening.

“I think your honor is just dead-bang wrong,” Miller said. “This is super important to the county of LA and the 30,000 people who live out there.”

Miller said he was told the company planned to resume operations Saturday.

Chris Gilbride, a SoCalGas spokesman, said the utility has a few steps to take before it can resume storing gas and wasn’t sure when it would restart.

The state allowed SoCalGas to resume limited operations last week under stricter rules. Fewer than half the 114 wells in the field have passed tests that would allow them to be used.

The county, however, said the state’s review didn’t adequately address the threat of a strong quake rumbling across the Santa Susana Mountains where the field is located.

“That’s a recipe for disaster,” Miller said. “We think they’re jumping the gun.”

The county’s legal filing included emails and a declaration from a former SoCalGas manager who raised concerns several years ago about the danger. Jim Mansdorfer, who managed the company’s gas storage wells for years, said the Santa Susana fault could rupture all wells and release gas at 100 to 1,000 times the rate of the 2015 blowout.

In response, the state said the facility has likely undergone more scrutiny from a regulatory agency than any facility in the U.S. and the county didn’t have a valid claim but could appeal to regulators.

The county’s claims are based on “the vague possibility of a future, hypothetical catastrophic earthquake,” the state said.

“Fearmongering and heated rhetoric aside, the county fails to allege a legal or factual basis upon which relief, let alone emergency relief, may be granted,” Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Rosenfeld said.

SoCalGas echoed the state’s arguments in a legal filing. In a letter to politicians and policymakers Monday, it said the county’s claims were “baseless and wrong.”

The company said it didn’t agree with Mansdorfer’s opinion, but it had forwarded his concerns to regulators.

While the company and the state have deemed the facility necessary for home heating and to fuel gas-fired power plants, Southern California has avoided predictions of blackouts over the past year while the facility was closed.

Many residents want to see Aliso Canyon permanently shuttered. They have held boisterous demonstrations at the facility’s gate, at public meetings and outside the courthouse Friday.

“It’s very scary,” Porter Ranch resident Richard Mathews said after the hearing. “So many people are feeling such terrible symptoms from this. People are still getting sick, and if they start the injections, if they increase the pressure 60 percent as expected, it increases the risk to all of us enormously.”

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