Attorneys and elected officials are faulting Southern California Gas Co. for removing a safety valve from a well that has been leaking near Porter Ranch for more than two months.

Several attorneys representing homeowners in Porter Ranch have argued that the absence of a valve shows the gas company has been negligent in operating the Aliso Canyon storage facility.  

“I think it shows gross negligence and willful behavior and a failure to protect the public for the sake of their own profits,” said Patricia Oliver, an attorney with the firm of R. Rex Parris.

The Parris firm is one of several that have filed class action complaints seeking compensatory damages for things like health effects, the cost of relocating residents in the area, and an expected hit to home values in the area. But attorneys are starting to look at the valve issue because that could lead to punitive damages as well.

“I do think they’re going to be subject to punitive damages,” Oliver said. “They are required to put whatever they need to put in their wells, to prevent a blowout.”

L.A. Weekly first reported on Dec. 22 that the gas company had removed the valve from the leaking well in 1979. The valve was not required by state regulations, but were it still in place, it could have been used to stop the flow of gas.

In an interview on KCRW’s “Which Way, L.A.” on Monday, U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman called for additional regulations that would require safety valves for gas storage facilities. Had such a valve been in place, Sherman said, the gas company “could have turned this off in a day.”

“In general, we are much more secure in transporting natural gas than in storing natural gas,” he said, adding that the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources deserves criticism for lax regulation. “These regulations should be higher.”

State Sen. Fran Pavley, who represents Porter Ranch, chairs the committee that oversees the state gas division, known as DOGGR. On Monday, her spokesman said she is “definitely looking into the possibility of legislation involving shut-off valves.”

Assemblyman Mike Gatto, the chairman of the Utilities and Commerce Committee, has also said he will hold hearings on the issue.

“There are so many facets of this leak,” Gatto said, noting that the legislature is still working on issues related to the 2010 gas explosion in San Bruno that killed eight people and destroyed 35 homes. “There are probably going to be several legislative proposals this year.”

More than 2,300 households have relocated from Porter Ranch at the gas company’s expense. Many residents have experienced headaches, nosebleeds, and nausea, among other symptoms, and are also worried about longer-term health effects.

Several attorneys who represent residents said the missing safety valve would be an important issue in their cases.

“That’s what we call reckless.” —said Roland Tellis

“It came as a surprise that they had removed it,” said Roland Tellis, an attorney at Baron & Budd. “That’s what we call reckless.”

Robin Greenwald, an attorney working with environmental activist Erin Brockovich, says her firm will also be looking at whether removing the valve amounts to negligence.

In an interview on Democracy Now!, Brockovich called it “mind-blowing” that the valve would be removed and not replaced. “All this methane, day in and day out, is just billowing out of this site,” she said. “You’ve removed a valve, you didn’t replace that valve, and you now don’t have the ability to stop this for half a year or longer.”

Greenwald’s firm, Weitz & Luxenberg, and the Parris firm have each added allegations about the missing valve to their complaints.

Melissa Bailey, a SoCalGas spokeswoman, said the company is focused on stopping the leak. Once that is completed, it will work with regulators to investigate the cause, she said.

“We don’t discuss pending litigation,” she said.

The Aliso Canyon field was originally developed for oil and gas production in the 1940s and 50s. Many of the 115 wells at the site, including the leaking well, were drilled at that time.

By the early 1970s, the field was depleted and it was sold and the empty underground cavern was converted to natural gas storage.

The wells were originally designed to withdraw oil and gas through a 2-inch tube. That tube is surrounded by a 7-inch steel casing. However, on the leaking well and on many others, the gas company opted to use the 7-inch casing, not the smaller tube, to inject and withdraw gas. That allowed the company to pump far more gas through each well, which helped serve a growing customer base.

“The reason we produce 'out of the casing' is for deliverability to customers,” said Rodger Schwecke, a SoCalGas executive, in an interview. “We need deliverability to customers.”

However, that design also removed one layer of protection in case of leaks. If the narrow tube were to leak, gas would still be contained within the wider casing. But if the casing leaks, there is nothing to prevent gas from seeping into the surrounding rock and finding its way to the surface.

Schwecke argued that this set-up did not pose a hazard.

“There’s no reason why producing out of the casing creates greater risk,” he said.

Schwecke said the safety valves in SS-25 and similar wells were old and leaking when they were removed. It was also difficult to find replacement parts, he said.

Oliver, the attorney, alleged that the safety valves were removed because they impeded the flow of gas.

Over decades of injecting and withdrawing gas at high pressures, the casing appears to have corroded. Gas is now leaking from a hole in the casing at about 470 feet below the surface.

In a securities filing, Sempra Energy, the parent company of SoCalGas, has said it has more than $1 billion in insurance to pay for the costs of the leak.

After six failed attempts to “kill” the well with brine and heavy liquids, the company began drilling a relief well on Dec. 4. A seventh attempt to kill the well just before Christmas also failed.

The relief well is expected to intercept the leaking well at a depth of more than 8,000 feet, which will allow engineers to pump fluid to shut off the flow of gas.

SoCalGas representatives have said the relief well is on target to stop the leak in late February or March. A second relief well, a backup, will begin drilling this month.

The company is still withdrawing gas from the underground reservoir, which serves 21 million customers and 14 power plants in Southern California. When the leak began, the reservoir was 93 percent full, but as of last week it was down to 58 percent.

That reduces the pressure of the gas escaping the well, which reduces the rate of flow and could help the gas company stop the leak.

On KCRW, Sherman said the company should be withdrawing at maximum capacity, even if it has to give gas away. Gillian Wright, vice president of customer services, said the company is withdrawing as quickly as it can.

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