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Porter Ranch: Judge gives displaced residents 3 more weeks to move home (updated)

File: Residents arrive at the SoCal Gas Community Resource Center in Porter Ranch on Jan. 8, 2016.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
SoCal Gas set up this Community Resource Center in Porter Ranch while the leak was ongoing to help people seeking temporary housing or lodging complaints.

Residents of Porter Ranch who relocated during the massive natural gas leak can stay in their temporary housing on Southern California Gas Co.'s tab until March 18, a Los Angeles judge ruled Thursday.

The gas company, which has been paying for interim housing for thousands of residents, had said that arrangement would end eight days after officials confirmed on Feb. 18 that the leak at its Aliso Canyon storage facility was plugged. But L.A. County lawyers sought a temporary restraining order, extending the grace period to 30 days.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu M. Berle granted the temporary restraining order Thursday.

SoCal Gas had argued before Thursday's hearing that the eight-day timeframe was sufficient, because it was based on data showing that the air in and around Porter Ranch "has returned to the typical air-quality conditions that existed prior to the leak."

Attorneys for the county argued that some of those who have already returned home to Porter Ranch are reporting health issues, so the gas company should be forced to continue paying to house them elsewhere while officials conduct additional air monitoring to confirm there is no health threat.

"We are disappointed in today’s decision," SoCal Gas said in a statement Thursday, noting that Judge Berle heard the motion "due to the unavailability of the judge with primary oversight of these matters."

The ruling "disregarded" the findings of local and state public health and air quality agencies that "there is no environmental or health reason for any further delay in enabling residents to return home," the gas company said.

The extension "creates additional uncertainty for the community, and imposes unexpected requirements on area hotels and temporary housing providers that may not be prepared to accommodate the unexpected extension of the relocation plan," it added.

SoCal Gas said the only people eligible for continued reimbursement are those who were still in temporary housing as of Thursday, or who had checked out on Thursday. Those people may return to their interim lodging and receive reimbursement through March 18, it said.

Nearly 8,000 households relocated during the gas leak, according to the gas company. It says that as of Feb. 23, 2,171 households had checked out of their temporary lodgings, 1,837 were still in long-term interim housing, and another 3,927 were staying in hotels or with friends or family.

SoCal Gas had worked out the original eight-day time period in collaboration with, among others, the office of L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer. The firm said Thursday's ruling "upends this collaborative process."

But city attorney spokesman Rob Wilcox said "we are pleased with today’s outcome and we look forward to the results of the department of public health’s testing." 

The L.A. County Department of Public Health unveiled plans Wednesday to test the air inside dozens of Porter Ranch homes.

Thursday's decision "is a big victory for the residents of Porter Ranch," said Tony Bell, spokesman for L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich. He called the original time period "irresponsible," saying it forced relocated residents "to be rushed into reestablishing their lives with just seven nights and eight days."

Paula Cracium, president of the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council, welcomed the ruling, calling it "amazing."

L.A. city councilman Mitchell Englander also praised the judge's action.

"Before this community can begin to heal, every resident must be confident that this tragedy is behind them and their family is safe," he said in a statement.

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti called the ruling "fair and compassionate," adding that it "will bring peace of mind" to those among the displaced who need more than eight days "to put their affairs in order with confidence in their health, safety, and financial security." 

On Wednesday, a senior official at L.A. County Public Health outlined a plan to conduct indoor air testing on approximately 100-200 Porter Ranch homes, beginning as early as the end of next week.

Angelo Bellomo, the department's deputy director for health protection, said all indications are that the levels of methane and other chemicals found in natural gas are at safe levels inside area homes. But the county is moving ahead with the indoor testing to provide worried residents with "another level of assurance," he said.

Paula Cracium, president of the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council, said the county needs to test more than the air inside people's homes. She argued that it should also test soil in backyards, pool water and inside surfaces such as air ducts and carpets.

This story has been updated.