An agreement reached in court Wednesday requires the Southern California Gas Company to find temporary housing within 72 hours for Porter Ranch residents seeking to relocate away from a leaking storage facility well, and sets up a mediation process to resolve complaints.
For the first time since the massive leak appeared two months ago in Aliso Canyon north of Porter Ranch, the Gas Company's ongoing response is now subject to court oversight, said Jim Clark, chief deputy city attorney for Los Angeles.
The city had gone to Superior Court seeking an injunction. But at the urging of Judge Emilie Elias, lawyers for both sides met outside the courtroom and during the morning reached accord on a plan that largely reflected what the city attorney had sought, as well as an action plan submitted by the untility. The city had called for a 48 hour window for initial placement. The negotiation added another day to that.
Top news of the day
"SoCalGas wants to work with the city and the county," said spokesman Mike Mizrahi.
Prodded by the Los Angeles County Dept. of Public Health, the Gas Company agreed last month to arrange temporary housing, and cover the cost of it for Porter Ranch residents seeking assistance. Health officials foresee no long term effects, but say the noxious odorant added to natural gas is responsible for widespread symptoms including headaches, nausea and respiratory distress.
An effort to stop the leak, involving the drilling of a so-called "relief" well nearly two miles long, could take several more months, Gas Company officials have projected.
So far, by the Gas Company's count, it has relocated 2,174 households. Requests from another 2,694 are in process, said Mizrahi. To do this, the company has hired 17 relocations firms, he said.
On receiving relocation requests, the Gas Company has been attempting to place residents in hotel rooms or other short term accommodations within 72 hours, and then move them into rental housing tailored to the family's size and needs, Mizrahi said.
In some cases, residents with large families have complained that provided accommodations do not have enough room, or are located too far away. Some residents have been placed in Burbank and Hollywood, they said, significantly increasing their commutes. Mizrahi said the company is committed to finding accommodations that meet the residents' specific needs.
"We're moving as fast as we can," Mizrahi said. "But you're right — it is a challenge."
The agreement acknowledges it will not always be possible to find temporary accommodations within 72 hours.
"They told us they would do the best they could," said Clark. "They're now under court order to do better than they have."
Wednesday afternoon, a steady stream of Porter Ranch residents was arriving at the storefront "Community Service Center" that SoCalGas set up last week in a storefront at the Porter Ranch Town Center.
Vishvas Joshi said he previously had arranged to stay at a hotel, but he and his wife have been told they will have to leave Friday morning to make way for guests who made advance holiday reservations. Joshi came to the storefront hoping the Gas Company can find them a new place to stay, but said he got no reassurance it would be done within 72 hours.
"They said, 'somebody will call you,'" Joshi recalled.
Another couple is hoping they will feel comfortable staying in their home after ventilation filters are installed next month at the Gas Company's expense, but is seeking other housing in the meantime.
"My situation is I'm concerned about my health," said Elsa Shaw, adding that her husband has been unable to shake a cold for the past month and a half, and she suspects it may be due to the pollutants leaked into the air. Shaw said she's pleased with the arrangements for the filters.
"They were really helpful on the phone," Shaw said.
Residents who feel the Gas Company did not properly handle their needs will have the option of bringing their complaints to a retired judge to mediate. Lawyers for the Gas Company and city attorney were planning to meet to select and reach out to judges, known as "special masters," to provide this service. If mediation does not resolve a dispute, the agreement enables the resident ultimately to bring the complaint to Judge Elias's court.
The agreement also formalized previous pledges by the Gas Company to board pets for relocated residents, and to fund any additional security deemed necessary by Los Angeles police to safeguard neighborhoods with large numbers of temporarily vacated homes.
Apart from the court action brought by Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, a growing number of private attorneys are filing civil actions against the Gas Company. Three of them attended Wednesday's court hearing. One of them, Matthew McNicholas, called the agreement "an excellent result for the people of Porter Ranch."
Gillian Wright, vice president of customer services for SoCalGas told City News Service that besides working with the relocation agencies, the utility is adding other resources to help residents.
"We are committed to best efforts to accommodate all residents in neighboring communities who need relocation, including people with disabilities and access and functional needs," Wright said.