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Judge orders SoCal Gas to pay for Porter Ranch home cleaning

Andrew Krowne holds up a photo of his six-year-old son's bloody nose before a public health meeting at Porter Ranch Community School on Thursday evening, May 19, 2016 following a fall 2015 gas leak that led many residents to leave their homes. The family has been relocated for 119 days in a hotel.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Andrew Krowne holds up a photo of his six-year-old son's bloody nose before a public health meeting at Porter Ranch Community School on Thursday evening, May 19, 2016 following a fall 2015 gas leak that led many residents to leave their homes. The family has been relocated for 119 days in a hotel.

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge on Friday ordered Southern California Gas Company to pay to clean some 2,500 homes, if residents request it before they return. 

Judge John Wiley's ruling ends the long and costly relocation of thousands of Porter Ranch families who left their homes to avoid potential health problems from a now-plugged ruptured natural gas well.

Friday’s ruling also requires the company to continue paying hotel and other relocation costs for families until their homes are cleaned.

“The residents finally have some closure,” said attorney Paul Kiesel,  liaison to the court for the dozens of lawyers representing hundreds of plaintiffs suing SoCal Gas over the leak and its effects on their health and economic well-being. “They understand the conditions that when they go home, their home will be cleaned to [Los Angeles County] Department of [Public] Health standards.”

The judge said residents have 24 hours to inform the gas company if they want their homes cleaned. Those who reject the cleaning would also see their paid relocation assistance from the company end within 48 hours. Those who do want cleaning can continue to stay in hotels and short-term rentals until their houses are cleaned and then would have 48 hours to return home or pay their own relocation costs.

A gas company representative said it hopes to finish the cleanings by June 7.

Porter Ranch residents living in hotels who don’t respond to the cleaning offer will see relocation assistance cut off May 27, and those in short-term rentals have until May 29. Those in long term rentals would be able to remain for the term of their leases.

The judge allowed SoCal Gas to choose which professional cleaners will do the work, something that didn’t sit well with advocate Matt Pakucko.  

“We really want to have the residents choose who cleans our homes,” said Pakucko, president of Save Porter Ranch, one of the organizations suing SoCal Gas. He said previous cleanings offered by SoCal Gas did not meet the standards set by the public health department. 

SoCal Gas had wanted the relocation program to end this weekend without an order to clean homes. SoCal Gas owns the well that leaked for four months at the Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility directly north of  Porter Ranch.

SoCal Gas attorney James Dragna said L.A. County had failed to prove that a large enough health threat existed to justify the health department's order to clean so many homes. He also argued that the obligation to clean homes was on the individual residents.

Judge Wiley responded by stating that SoCal Gas had created the nuisance of the well blowout — and the dust and smells that penetrated homes afterward.

County testing inside a number of Porter Ranch homes this spring turned up trace amounts of metals that are often used in oil and gas operations, like like barium sulfate. County officials said those metals aren't normally found in household dust and could be the cause of ongoing ailments reported by many residents who have returned to Porter Ranch. At the same time, though, county officials say there are no known long-term health problems associated with the chemicals in the amounts  found.  

Still, Judge Wiley said that even if the metals don't pose a health threat, residents still had the right to have SoCal Gas remove them.

"Because it created the nuisance, SoCal Gas must bear the cost [...] until residents are safely home," Wiley wrote in his ruling. He also said that prospective homebuyers would be wary of purchasing a home that had not undergone a thorough post-leak cleaning.

SoCal Gas sought to have the relocation program end Sunday. It also wanted the court to reject a county Public Health Department directive to pay to clean potentially thousands of homes within a five-mile radius of the ruptured well. The department has established a protocol that calls for the cleaning of air ducts and steam cleaning drapes and upholstered furniture, among other actions. Public health officials have recommended the cleaning be done by professionals to assure it is done correctly and to spare sensitive residents any continued exposure to the low levels of metals in the dust.

A well located within the gas company's massive Aliso Canyon facility was found leaking in late October. It blew methane and other chemicals uncontrollably into the atmosphere for about four months before it was plugged in mid-February. Even after the leak was plugged, residents continued to report ailments they blamed on the aftereffects of the incident. They pressed the county to test indoor air and dust samples. Earlier this spring, the health department tested for some 250 chemicals.

Small amounts of barium sulfate and other metals were found in the dust of 100 Porter Ranch homes and two schools. The metals matched those found in mud around the site of the broken well. Some of the metals are found in muds used during well drilling and in the muds and heavy fluids forced down wells to stop leaks.

The presence of the dust was below what health officials say is likely to cause long-term health problems, but it could have been the cause of some of the nosebleeds, headaches and other symptoms reported by some 62 percent of households surveyed about their health after the leak was contained.

In its request to the court, the gas company said the relocation program had lasted about 90 days longer than originally intended, at a cost of more than $2 million per day. In filings to shareholders, the company has said its relocation program, which began in December, would cost more than $465 million through June 7.

Originally, the company wanted to end the relocations 48 hours after the leak was plugged, but continuing requests by the county health department, prodded by County Supervisor Mike Antonovich and others, kept the relocation program going because residents continued to report they were getting ill when they returned home.

More than 8,000 households left the area at SoCal Gas' expense during the leak. Even now, some 2,539 families remain away out of health concerns, SoCal Gas said in court papers. Of those, 835 are in hotels, 1,273 are in short- or long-term rentals and 431 households are staying with friends or family.

SoCal Gas said the county had not presented evidence of any health hazard to residents to justify continuing the relocation program. It said any link is "hypothetical at best."

The gas company argued that the county did not find conclusively that the metals found in home dust came from the ruptured well site. SoCal Gas repeatedly invoked county Public Health Officer Jeffrey Gunzenhauser's statements that it was safe for residents to return home.

The home-cleaning ordered by the county was never part of the original relocation agreement, SoCal Gas argued. The company says that because it is safe to return home, no cleaning should be provided.