Utility pleads not guilty in Los Angeles-area gas leak

SANTA CLARITA, Calif. – Southern California Gas Co. pleaded not guilty Wednesday to misdemeanour criminal charges stemming from a weekslong leak of gas from a storage well that led thousands of nearby Los Angeles residents to relocate.

The utility’s attorneys entered the pleas in Los Angeles County Superior Court in suburban Santa Clarita.

“We do not believe a criminal prosecution is warranted here,” SoCalGas spokesman Mike Mizrahi said outside court.

The complaint brought by the county district attorney includes three counts of failing to report the release of a hazardous material and one count of discharge of air contaminants.

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 regulators.

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

Residents of the nearby Los Angeles community of Porter Ranch began complaining of symptoms ranging from nosebleeds to nausea.

Nearly 6,500 families have temporarily relocated to short-term housing such as hotels and rental houses.

The leak was stopped last week, but the families won’t start moving back until state authorities have certified that cement pumped into the well has permanently plugged it.

The well that ruptured was more than 60 years old and was originally drilled to pump oil from deep underground. It was reused in the 1970s to pump natural gas into the empty oil wells for storage and withdraw it when demand spiked.