Ever since one of its wells in California started spewing natural gas in October, Sempra Energy’s message to residents has been the same: Don’t worry – the leak poses no public safety threat and won’t cause long-term health effects.
They aren’t buying it.
Californians are worrying plenty and starting to take action. State Attorney General Kamala Harris said Tuesday that she had joined a lawsuit against the company, describing the leak as “a public health and statewide environmental emergency.” Hours later, Los Angeles County said it had filed misdemeanor charges. University of Southern California researchers are looking to study the health effects of the leak, saying it’s impossible for anyone to rule them out, and air quality regulators are ordering Sempra to pay for a review.
The charges, the lawsuit and the health challenges all underscore the resentment swelling in Sempra’s own backyard after it was seen as slow to respond and then failing to take the matter as seriously as residents, environmentalists and policy makers say it should. The response has drawn analogies to Flint, Michigan, where complaints over tainted water went unanswered for months before the problem exploded into a full- blown crisis.
“Telling people who are upset that it is not a problem or serious is a terrible crisis management strategy,” said Susan Tellem, a partner at Tellem Grody Public Relations in Los Angeles. “Everything moved in slow motion with this leak.”
According to Los Angeles County prosecutors and the state’s lawsuit, Sempra’s Southern California Gas utility didn’t report the leak to state authorities until about three days after discovering it.
In Flint, officials are facing similar criticism after the discovery of lead in the city’s water supply. Democrats say Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, and other state officials ignored the problem in the majority black city of 100,000 north of Detroit.
“The thing I thought of when this first happened was the problem with lead in the water in Flint,” said Daniel Keeney, president of Dallas-based DPK Public Relations. “I would be advocating for very close and constant contact with residents to try to keep them happy.”
Sempra discovered the leak on Oct. 23. In its first public statement five days later, it told nearby residents in the Porter Ranch neighborhood of Los Angeles that there was no imminent threat to public safety. Humans “can detect the smell of the odorant at levels much lower than any level of concern,” it said.
Since then California’s governor has declared a state of emergency, public health officials said the leak is making people sick and thousands of people have been forced into temporary housing. Homes are “becoming infused with this horrid smell and the chemicals,” U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, said Tuesday in Washington.
The best way to prevent future public health threats is “using the sanctions available through a criminal conviction,” Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said Tuesday.
“We will defend ourselves vigorously through the judicial process,” Southern California Gas spokeswoman Kristine Lloyd said by e-mail.
Sempra’s response has fueled a backlash from senators calling for a federal probe to city officials threatening to permanently shut its entire field, which can deliver more gas daily than any storage site west of the Rockies, according to government data.
“We have made a concerted effort through this incident to communicate with all the key stakeholders,” Javier Mendoza, a spokesman for Southern California Gas said by phone. “When we have time to reflect, we will no doubt pinpoint areas where we can improve.”
One of Sempra’s earliest public-relations blunders was to ask people displaced by the leak to submit receipts for expenses, Keeney said.
“That is something I could have told them early on was not a good idea,” Keeney said.
State air regulators have estimated emissions from the well at 2.2 million tons as of Jan. 26, more than an oil refinery south of the leak site released in all of 2014. The San Diego- basedutility owner maintains there is no long-term threat even as regional air quality officials say there isn’t enough information to make that claim.
“We don’t know if there are or are not long-term effects from the leak,” said Edward Avol, a professor at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. “We shouldn’t just dismiss this out of hand.”
Sempra says it can plug the leak by the end of February. Civil liabilities, administrative penalties and other costs will probably be “well below” the $1 billion in insurance the company says it maintains, based on a Bloomberg Intelligence estimate.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Defense Fund has distributed a video recorded using a infrared camera that shows a black plume expanding over the site. It had been viewed about 1.3 million times on YouTube as of Tuesday.
“The gas company kept insisting there was no danger, that methane itself is not poisonous,” Paul E. Hunt, who lives in Porter Ranch, said in a telephone interview. “I left because of health concerns. It was pungent, designed to be displeasing. When you’re sleeping with it and that’s what your house is full of, it’s miserable.”
– With assistance from James Nash
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