The Southern California Gas Company Tuesday asked a state utilities commission to exclude a damning report detailing the root causes of the 2015 Aliso Canyon methane blowout from the investigation of its safety culture, because a state employee who oversaw operations to close the leak contracted a rare form of cancer and is now suing the utility.
The state employee is one of thousands of plaintiffs suing SoCalGas and its parent company in civil court over the leak that spewed 100,000 tons of methane into Southern California for 111 days beginning in October 2015.
The largest methane gas blowout in the history of the U.S. exposed thousands of residents to harmful chemicals and forced them to flee from their homes, but it is just one of several episodes troubling the California Public Utilities Commission, which ordered an investigation into SoCalGas and its parent company’s prioritization of safety.
A report issued in May 2019 found that corroded pipes led to the blowout and detailed a lack of thorough safety inspects on a storage facility’s underground wells.
The site in northern Los Angeles County near Porter Ranch has not been properly maintained since the 1970s, according to the report. In 1988, an internal memo at the utility company recommended inspection of 20 wells to check on the condition of each well’s casing, but there was no overall review. One of those wells burst in 2015.
In the root cause analysis report authored by the third-party Blade Energy Partners and released by the California Public Utilities Commission last month, SoCal Gas was aware of prior leaks at its site but did not investigate.
On Thursday, Commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen said the Blade report raised serious questions about SoCalGas’s risk assessment procedures.
“If SoCalGas had had a robust safety culture in place, there would have been a much better chance that it would have taken measures to avoid these incidents from occurring,” Rechtschaffen said.
Before the commission unanimously agreed Thursday to carry out the investigation, a representative from the utility company – Bay Area attorney Jack Stoddard from Morgan Lewis – asked that the Blade report be omitted from the commission’s investigation.
Stoddard said the Public Utilities Commission program manager Kenneth Bruno, who monitored the closure of the well at Aliso Canyon beginning on November 4, 2015, is now suing SoCalGas for negligence, strict liability for hazardous activities and other complaints.
Bruno said he contracted hairy cell leukemia, a rare form of cancer of the blood, which he claims was caused by exposure to chemicals while working at the Aliso Canyon site that he visited dozens of times.
SoCal Gas told Bruno to bring boots, a hardhat, pants and a jacket to the Aliso Canyon site while utility workers tried to cap the methane leak. Bruno should have been told to bring a respirator due to his exposure to benzene levels in the area, according to Bruno’s attorney Rex Parris.
“He would not have gone up there had he known the benzene levels he would have been exposed to,” Parris told Courthouse News. “In order to maintain this fiction, [SoCalGas] knowingly, willfully exposed their employees and state employees to intolerable conditions. They knew it.”
SoCalGas did not take adequate readings to gauge toxins in the air and did not warn Bruno to take off his clothes before getting into his car, or to dispose of them before going home to his wife and children, according to the complaint.
Bruno hired Blade Energy Partners to conduct its investigation into the cause of the blowout. The contractor wanted to analyze the tubing and casing around the pipe that burst and caused the massive blowout, but Sempra and SoCalGas sought to block Blade from this evidence, Bruno said in his complaint.
The utility company allegedly tried to pour cement into the piping and tubing underground, but Bruno “blocked Sempra and SoCalGas from destroying evidence.”
Parris is representing more than 9,000 plaintiffs suing SoCalGas, including 50 firefighters who were exposed to the same harmful chemicals when they lived in firehouses near the Aliso Canyon facility.
“We have children with leukemia due to the benzene exposure,” Parris said. “No one has ever attempted to find out why. How can you have thousands of people with nosebleeds? SoCalGas has been trying to suppress the findings of the report since the inception of the blowout.”
SoCalGas did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.
— By Nathan Solis