Porter Ranch:
Criminal Charges Against Gas Company Don’t Begin to Address the Crimes

February 8, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


Public hearing about Porter Ranch gas leak
January 23—More than 150 people, nearly all from Porter Ranch, came to hear and protest what they already knew was going to be a kick in the teeth to their number one demand: that the entire Aliso Canyon storage fields be shut down. AP photo

There was a flurry of publicity in the mainstream media on Tuesday, February 2, as LA County district and California state’s attorneys practically tripped over each other to suddenly announce that they were each bringing charges against Southern California Gas Company (SOCAL)—well over three months since the start of the worst natural gas disaster in this country’s history. The massive leak from a blown-out natural gas well at their Aliso Canyon storage facility near the community of Porter Ranch in LA’s San Fernando Valley has already driven over 80,000 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere since its start. And the most optimistic estimates are that the company will not be able to cap the well till the end of February.

More than half of the 30,000 residents of the middle class community of Porter Ranch have been forced to relocate after experiencing headaches, nosebleeds, vomiting, and difficulty breathing; and two schools have had to be closed. This leak is also a massive climate disaster, because methane, the main component of natural gas, is an extremely potent greenhouse gas causing global warming. (See previous article at revcom.us, “Porter Ranch Gas Disaster and the Poisonous Lies of the System.”)

The number one demand of the people of Porter Ranch, and those supporting their struggle, has been “Shut. It. All. Down. Now.” The district attorney’s news release about the charges against SOCAL made it clear they have no intention of meeting that demand: “We will do everything we can as prosecutors to help ensure that the Aliso Canyon facility is brought into compliance.”

"Not Fit Caretakers of the Earth," a clip from the film Revolution: Why It's Necessary, Why It's Possible, What It's All About, a film of a talk by Bob Avakian. Learn more about BA here

Whether intentional or not, the timing of the announcements on the SOCAL charges overshadowed the announcement of another legal action—the first wrongful death lawsuit related to the gas disaster, filed on behalf of the family of 79-year-old Zelda Rothman, a longtime resident of Porter Ranch. The suit accuses SOCAL of exacerbating her already fragile health, caused by lung cancer, leading to her premature death. The suit charges that the contaminated air forced her to use an oxygen tank 24 hours a day, which weakened her health and hastened her death. Her son told the LA Daily News that he pursued the lawsuit because his mother told him she was certain she would be among the first of many casualties as a result of this gas leak.

The lawyer for the family of Zelda Rothman said in a statement: “Southern California Gas Company’s decision to operate its inherently dangerous gas storage operation next to 30,000 residents of Porter Ranch without taking all reasonable steps necessary to prevent catastrophic gas leaks is unconscionable.”

What Regulations?

Outrageously, this unfolding catastrophe could have been stopped very quickly. In 1979, SOCAL removed, and did not replace, a broken safety valve that would have stopped the leak. But SOCAL is driven by the greater laws of capitalism. So for them, the concern for the delay that would have been caused to the operation of just one of 115 wells at this facility while a replacement part could be found was the top priority—while the potential danger to the people of the surrounding area and to the global environment as well did not figure into their calculations.

And further, consistent with the workings of this capitalist system, the largest natural gas storage facility in the western United States—which is 60 years old and known to have numerous corroding and leaking wells—has been free to operate without any serious ongoing oversight or continuous inspections and monitoring of the facility and the environment around it by any government agency, at any level.

In fact, according to a Reuters report: “SOCAL warned state utility regulators in 2014 of ‘major failures’ without a rate hike to pay for comprehensive inspections of 229 storage wells. Twenty-six of its wells were ‘high risk’ and should be abandoned—even though they complied with state regulations.” In other words, long before the disaster, SOCAL knew the wells were dangerous and that there could be a major disaster.

And this is not a problem just with SOCAL. The fact is that across the country there is practically no oversight of 400 similar underground gas storage facilities in 30 U.S. states. How is this possible? The view of the government has been that self-regulation by the utility companies is sufficient. A spokesperson for California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources said, “Regardless of the regulations, it’s in an operator’s interest not to have leaks, because that means they’re losing their product.”

Crime... and “Punishment”

What are the actual charges against SOCAL? LA District Attorney Jackie Lacey—infamous for not finding a single case of murder by police in the county worthy of prosecution—filed three misdemeanor counts for “failing to immediately report the gas leak at its Aliso Canyon facility to the proper state authorities” and one misdemeanor count for discharging air contaminants. In regard to the first charge, many Porter Ranch residents have said their symptoms began occurring over the summer, months before the official announcement from the gas company that a massive leak was taking place. But county prosecutors appear to have accepted SOCAL’s claim that the leak began on October 23, and only “accuses” them of waiting three days (!) to notify state authorities.

If found guilty, the company would have to pay $25,000 per day for three days of allegedly failing to report, or $75,000; and $1,000 for each day the gas leak continues, which according to current predictions would amount to another $125,000 or so—a total of $200,000, a puny amount for SOCAL. The state lawsuit alleges that SOCAL violated state health and safety laws by not promptly controlling the leak, which continues to be out of control. The financial liability attached to this lawsuit has yet to be made public.

And so the deep concerns of people whose lives have been made hellish by the gas leaks, and who live in the shadow of possibly even greater disaster, have been and continue to be overruled by the needs of the capitalist system.

As Bob Avakian points out:

This system and those who rule over it are not capable of carrying out economic development to meet the needs of the people now, while balancing that with the needs of future generations and requirements of safeguarding the environment. They care nothing for the rich diversity of the earth and its species, for the treasures this contains, except when and where they can turn this into profit for themselves....These people are not fit to be the caretakers of the earth.

BAsics 1:29



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