The company responsible for a massive gas leak that spewed thousands of tons of methane into the Southern California atmosphere has agreed to pay nearly $120 million for the disaster, an agreement members of the community impacted were quick to criticize as inadequate.
The settlement requires the Southern California Gas Company, or SoCalGas, to pay $119.5 million for costs associated with the 2015 leak at Aliso Canyon, near the Los Angeles neighborhood of Porter Ranch. The leak was the largest of its kind in US history — it spewed the greenhouse gas equivalent of 572,000 cars in a year — and money from the settlement will be used to reimburse the government for its response to the incident, fund environmental projects, and conduct a long-term health study.
The settlement still has to be approved by a judge.
In a statement Wednesday, SoCalGas said the settlement would "help California meet its ambitious climate goals by advancing projects that capture methane from dairy farms and waste and convert that energy into renewable natural gas."
"SoCalGas is delivering on our commitment to the governor and the people of California to fully mitigate the methane emissions from the leak out our Aliso Canyon facility," the statement added.
The blowout at the Aliso Canyon oil field was discovered in October 2015 at an injection well, a large cavity thousands of feet underground, into which natural gas was pumped for storage. By the time officials managed to plug the leak four months later, the well had spewed tens of thousands of metric tons of methane — a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide — into the atmosphere.
Residents have since complained for years that they suffered an array of health problems associated with the leak, ranging from headaches to cancer.
Patricia Oliver, an attorney representing numerous Porter Ranch residents, said Wednesday that gas has continued to seep out of the facility, and that numerous questions remain about what exactly happened. She sharply criticized the settlement as a "hear no evil, see no evil" deal between SoCalGas and government regulators.
"We don’t know where the gas went underground. We don’t know what chemicals were released," Oliver told BuzzFeed News. "We don’t really know the truth. Without knowing what the chemicals are and where those chemicals travel underground or during leaks, I think it would be unrealistic to suggest this was protecting the public."
With many questions still unanswered, the response from the community to the settlement has been overwhelmingly negative.
"So far everybody has been pretty horrified that this is being done without a discussion about what the chemicals are," she said.
California State Sen. Henry Stern, who represents the area, also criticized the settlement. In a statement, he referred to the public health study as a "big win," but added that the overall agreement "does nothing to reduce our dependence on Aliso Canyon."
"Instead of improving the lives of residents and ratepayers impacted by the blowout, it would fund pet projects for the Gas Company hundreds of miles away," Stern added.
Other elected officials were more positive about the settlement. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement that residents "deserve justice" and that the agreement "would be an essential step forward in helping the community recover."
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement that the leak "undermined our crucial work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," and said the settlement would "go a long way in addressing the short and long-term harms attributable to the leak."
However, many in the community have spent the last three years demanding the Aliso Canyon facility be shut down entirely. Oliver said the settlement does not appear to move the facility any closer to closure.
"There’s nothing even remotely suggesting they’re going to realistically shut it down," she said. "I don’t know why they aren’t doing more to shut it down."
In the meantime, the facility's impacts on the community are continuing, according to Jeffrey Nordella, a doctor who formerly worked in a Porter Ranch urgent care center and has studied the impacts of the blowout. Nordella told BuzzFeed News that residents continue to report health problems such as headaches, achy muscles, mental fogginess, and fatigue.
"These are all signs of heavy metal toxicity," he said. "You’re seeing that now in particular groups of patients."
Nordella said a study is an important step, but suggested that the facility should be closed down until the health and safety issues are better understood. Even with the health study, he said, Wednesday's settlement didn't do enough to rectify the damage caused by the leak.
"What are they really spending on the people?" Nordella asked. "What about the human beings that live there? I don’t think it’s really doing anything for the community."