Los Angeles County prosecutors filed criminal misdemeanor charges Tuesday against Southern California Gas Co. in connection with the ongoing leak above Porter Ranch.
The charges, related to the company allegedly having failed to immediately report the leak in a deep underground well at the Aliso Canyon facility, were announced by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
Earlier Tuesday, California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced that her office had joined a civil lawsuit filed by the county and city of Los Angeles against the utility.
"While we recognize that neither the criminal charges nor the civil lawsuits will offer the residents of Los Angeles County a complete solution, it is important that Southern California Gas Co. be held responsible for its criminal actions," county District Attorney Jackie Lacey said in a statement.
The company, a subsidiary of San Diego-based Sempra Energy, was charged with three counts of failing to report the release of hazardous materials from Oct. 23 to Oct. 26, 2015, and one count of discharging air contaminants, beginning on Oct. 23, 2015, to the present.
SoCal Gas responded to the charges in a statement released Tuesday evening.
"We have just been notified of this filing and we are still reviewing it. We have been working with regulatory agencies to mitigate the odors associated with the natural gas leak and to abate the gas leak as quickly as safety allows. We will defend ourselves vigorously through the judicial process."
The case was investigated by the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
The leak was first detected Oct. 23, and the company continues to work to complete drilling a relief well and to shut down the old leaking well. The work is expected to be completed by late February or possibly earlier.
The smell of compounds added to the natural gas — and related medical reactions by local residents — have prompted thousands of families to relocate, as well as two schools to move students to other campuses.
In early January, it was estimated that the cumulative methane emissions from the leak amounted to more than 2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent -- or about 2 percent of statewide greenhouse gas emissions, Harris stated in a news release. By late January, emissions decreased about 65 percent since their peak on Nov. 28, according to the California Air Resources Board.
Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch Englander organized a legal forum for residents Tuesday night in Porter Ranch.
He agreed with the DA's decision to file charges.
"This has been a crime scene, quite frankly, where you have this much damage," Englander said. "People are sick and hospitalized."
If convicted of the misdemeanor charges, SoCal Gas could be fined up to $25,000 for each day that it failed to notify the California Office of Emergency Services of the leak, the DA's office said.
The company also could be fined up to $1,000 per day for air pollution violations.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District, the region’s air regulator, has separately sued SoCal Gas.
Arraignment is scheduled for Feb. 17 at the Santa Clarita courthouse.