LOS ANGELES – A California judge tentatively denied a motion to halt the reopening of a massive natural gas storage facility in Los Angeles County that has been offline since a major blowout.
Lawyers for the county had asked Superior Court Judge John Wiley to stop Southern California Gas Co. from restarting operations at Aliso Canyon because of earthquake risks. The judge tentatively ruled against the county on Friday, according to court filings made public before a hearing.
Last week state regulators gave approval to pump gas into underground storage wells after an overhaul and extensive testing.
Wiley cited two state laws that prevented his interference. While acknowledging that it was a vitally important issue, he said the Legislature had taken authority away from Superior Court judges to interfere with orders by the California Public Utilities Commission.
“So what’s my power?” Wiley said in explaining his decision in the courtroom. “Zero. I have zero power. Because in the 1950s the Legislature said, ‘Hands off. The PUC owns this problem.’ ”
The facility above the San Fernando Valley has been largely out of commission since an old well failed in October 2015 and spewed methane for nearly four months, driving residents from 8,000 homes. The blowout released the largest-known amount of methane in the U.S. and led to widespread complaints of nosebleeds, nausea, headaches and symptoms that persisted even after the leak was capped last year.
The county’s lawyer, Skip Miller, disagreed with the judge and asked for a stay so he could go to an appeal court.
“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.”
State regulators gave approval last week to let SoCalGas resume more limited operations under stricter rules after the facility underwent a major overhaul and passed rigorous testing.
The county, however, said the state didn’t adequately address the threat of a 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 storages wells for years, said the Santa Susana fault could rupture all 114 wells and release gas at 100 to 1,000 times the rate of the 2015 blowout.
In its response, the state said the facility has probably undergone more scrutiny from a regulatory agency than any facility in the U.S. The county’s claims are based on “the vague possibility of a future, hypothetical catastrophic earthquake,” the state said.
“Fear-mongering 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 along to state 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 escaped 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 outside the gate of the facility and at public meetings.