The Massive Environmental Disaster in California Just Took a Criminal Twist

The legal case against the California natural gas company responsible for a massive, months-long methane leak ramped up on Tuesday. Prosecutors in Los Angeles filed criminal misdemeanor charges against Southern California Gas Co. for failing to immediately report the leak in October.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said in a statement that the suit was the least her office could do to rectify the problems caused by the leak, which has released more than 80,000 metric tons of harmful methane gas into the atmosphere, and displaced thousands of residents in Porter Ranch, a suburb north of Los Angeles.


"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," Lacey said in a statement. "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 will be held responsible for the release of hazardous gas for three days between October 23 and 26, according to a release by the District Attorney's office. SoCal Gas faces fines of up to $25,000 for each day, as well as an additional $1,000 per day for violating pollution standards.

Earlier on Tuesday, California Attorney General Kamala Harris filed a civil suit against the company, citing violations of health and safety laws.

“The impact of this unprecedented gas leak is devastating to families in our state, our environment, and our efforts to combat global warming. Southern California Gas Company must be held accountable,” said Harris in a statement. “This gas leak has caused significant damage to the Porter Ranch community as well as our statewide efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow the impacts of climate change.”


The leak at SoCal Gas' Aliso Canyon facility has caused a number of problems for surrounding communities. Along with displacing thousands of residents, including California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, the leak has posed both financial and health concerns.

"There are thousands of families affected by this ... there are thousands trying to move," Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. told ATTN: recently. "Everybody's property value is going to be diminished. The gas leak is a taking. It's a trespass on people's property, but it's a taking, because it diminishes the value of that property."

The vexing leak began in October, but did not receive major media attention until months later, when California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency. Shortly before that, an infrared video (above) captured by an environmental watchdog group showed just how much methane was leaking out, presenting a visual image of the otherwise invisible gas. That's one reason observers say it was able to fly under the radar.

"With the BP Oil spill, you had oil coming up on the beaches, you had a flame out in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico with dozens of ships surrounding it trying to put out fires and stem the oil spill. So it was an easier thing for the media to cover," Kennedy told ATTN:. "You know this gas is invisible. And the impacts could be latent. There are impacts that may not show up for many years — particularly with [potential] Benzene exposure. You may have cancer that doesn't appear until years from now. So there are less visuals here."

"When we're going to talk about Sempra energy and Southern Cal. Gas, and obviously they're going to get sued, and boy howdy it's going to be — in my opinion — potentially billions of dollars, do we not go from nuisance to criminal conduct?" environmental activist Erin Brockovich told ATTN:. "We have to stop this.... Companies that continue to do this. This is an assault."

SoCal Gas released the below statement following the DA's filing of criminal charges:

"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."

SoCal Gas did not return ATTN:'s request for comment prior to the publishing of this story.