PORTER RANCH (CBSLA/AP) — Environmental groups are criticizing last year’s $120 million court settlement in the devastating Aliso Canyon gas leak because a large portion of the money will be used to fund a plan that would capture methane from dairy farms in the state’s farm belt — more than 100 miles from where the blowout occurred — and convert it into natural gas.
Last August, officials with the state of California and the city of Los Angeles reached a $119.5 million settlement with the Southern California Gas Company over the Aliso Canyon methane gas leak, the largest methane gas leak in U.S. history, which forced thousands of Porter Ranch residents to evacuate their homes.
On Monday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Carolyn Kuhl gave final approval to the $119.5 million settlement. The utility still faces more than 385 lawsuits on behalf of 48,000 people.
The mitigation part of the deal calls for the utility to pay $26.5 million toward technology that captures methane from lagoons of cow manure and pipes it into the natural gas supply chain to be used to fuel trucks that run on compressed natural gas.
A coalition of environmental groups have criticized that decision as an inefficient way to absorb the methane and said it would lead to larger and more concentrated dairies and lead to smoggier air in the already heavily polluted San Joaquin Valley while also creating more natural gas infrastructure at a time when cleaner alternatives are needed.
The environmental groups are also complaining that the utility is getting full credit for projects partly funded by state money. Earthjustice criticized the deal because SoCalGas will receive full credit even though public funds are being used. It also said there’s not enough information to determine what percentage of a project the gas company will fund.
“They get to count methane reduction that was already happening on the public dime,” said attorney Nina Robertson of Earthjustice.
Beginning in October 2015, the Aliso Canyon underground storage facility spewed about 109,000 metric tons of methane into the air and led to the temporary relocation of about 7,000 Porter Ranch-area residents. The leak was not capped until February 2016.
The leak occurred in an over 60-year-old well, one of 115 wells at a vacant oil field that was converted in the 1970s to store gas a mile-and-a-half underground where crude oil had been removed. Aliso Canyon is the largest natural gas storage site in the West.
The leak led to mass complaints of health issues ranging from headaches and nosebleeds to nausea and cancer; issues that persisted after the leak was capped.
SoCalGas has spent more than $1 billion related to the blowout with the majority of that going to temporarily relocate the thousands of Porter Ranch families, according to filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Under the settlement, the utility agreed to pay up to $25 million to study long-term health consequences; reimburse city, county and state governments for responding to the incident; and monitor chemicals in the air near the facility for eight years. Costs of the settlement can’t be passed along to ratepayers.
Environmental groups have joined the chorus of residents directly affected by the blowout in calling for mitigation in the L.A. area where there are plenty of sources where methane could be reduced.
“Fix what you broke where you broke it,” said Phoebe Seaton of the Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability.
Representatives from the attorney general’s office and the California Air Resources Board would not comment in advance of the hearing, but the air board defended the settlement in a response to public comments filed in the court case.
Chris Gilbride, a spokesman for SoCalGas, did not comment on the criticism but said the settlement is consistent with the utility’s commitment to mitigate the leak.
In 2017, SoCalGas reached an $8.5 million settlement with South Coast Air Quality Management District over the leak, which included $1 million in funding for an SCAQMD-sponsored health study on the impacts of the leak, although county health officials said that $35 million to $40 million would be needed for an adequate study.
(© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press and City News Service contributed to this report.)