Days after Southern California Gas Co. declared that it had temporarily capped a months-old leak of natural gas in Porter Ranch, the company pleaded not guilty Wednesday to misdemeanor charges for allegedly failing to immediately report the leak to state authorities.
Attorneys for the Gas Co. entered the not guilty plea in a Santa Clarita courtroom, and another hearing was set for April 19. Outside court, a spokesman for the company said the utility does not feel any laws were broken in its handling of the leak, and it is continuing to work to ensure the safety of Porter Ranch residents.
"We do not believe a criminal prosecution is warranted here," Mike Mizrahi said. "We will look forward to presenting our evidence to the district attorney through the legal proceedings."
The charges were filed by the District Attorney's Office on Feb. 2.
"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," District Attorney Jackie Lacey said at the time.
"We will do everything we can as prosecutors to help ensure that the Aliso Canyon facility is brought into compliance," she said. "I believe we can best serve our community using the sanctions available through a criminal conviction to prevent similar public health threats in the future."
The company is charged with three counts of failing to report the release of hazardous materials from Oct. 23 to Oct. 26, and one count of discharging air contaminants, beginning Oct. 23 and continuing for the duration of the leak.
The charges are all misdemeanors. If convicted, the company could be fined up to $25,000 a day for each day it failed to notify the state Office of Emergency Services about the leak. It could be fined up to $1,000 per day for air pollution violations, prosecutors said.
Officials with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health have said they do not believe the gas leak poses any long-term risk, but it plans to continue monitoring air quality in the area. The Gas Co. announced Thursday that a relief well more than 8,600 feet long intercepted the leaking well and crews began pumping heavy fluids to control the flow of gas.
The company then began injecting cement into the leaking well, a process that was expected to take several days. Once the gas company seals the leaking well with cement, the Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources agency must confirm that the flow of gas has stopped.
Once the state confirms that the leak has been halted, residents who have been relocated from their homes due to the leak will have eight days to move back to their homes. People living in temporary housing with extended leases will have until those leases run out to return home.