Judge upholds plea deal in Aliso Canyon air polluting case

Expectant Porter Ranch mother and realtor Danielle Rabadi speaks to members of the press outside the Santa Clarita Courthouse following a Tuesday morning court hearing. Austin Dave/The Signal

Despite the tearful pleas made by Porter Ranch residents seeking restitution for their pain and suffering for exposure to gases released into the community more than a year ago, a judge upheld the plea deal hammered out by prosecutors and agreed to by gas company officials in September.

“The bottom line is I am approving this plea agreement,” Judge Allen Rosenfield told a packed courtoom at the Santa Clarita Courthouse Tuesday morning.

Rosenfield, in handing down his sentence shortly before noon, ordered Southern California Gas Co. to pay a $75,000 fine, plus a penalty assessment of $232,500 and other fees amounting to about $4.5 million.

“One thing that frustrates me is that so many people affected by this feel as though our justice system is not working well enough or fast enough,” he said.

Porter Ranch residents, many who expressed feeling betrayed by the prosecutors who made a deal with SoCal Gas over failure to report harmful emissions, made a tearful plea in court seeking for compensation through restitution.

“I feel like I’ve been raped by the District Attorney,” Porter Ranch resident Maureen Capra said Tuesday.

“Like all the residents of Porter Ranch I am very, very upset,” she said, breaking down in tears before the judge.

“They did not hear us,” she said of the prosecutors.  “They’re supposed to represent the people.”

Residents such as Porter Ranch real estate agent Danielle Rabadi told the court how the gas emissions affected her personally and professionally.

The prosecutor turned around to face the courtroom and expressed hope for the health of Rabadi during her pregnancy.

“I had to move out of my house and stay in a one bedroom apartment,” Rabadi told The Signal when the court took a break.

Plea deal

Southern California Gas Co. pleaded no contest in September to polluting the air at its Aliso Canyon facility in Porter Ranch in October 2015, agreeing to pay at least $4 million in fines and upgrades to monitoring gas leaks.

That same day, parent company Sempra Energy, announced that the SoCal Gas chief executive was stepping aside.

The company pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor of failing to report the release of hazardous materials from Oct. 23 to Oct. 26, 2015.

A list of more than a dozen terms to which gas company agreed to meet, including paying a maximum fine of $75,000 for having failed to report the leak in a timely manner, was read off by Deputy District Attorney Dan Wright of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office.

Pursuant to the plea, SoCal Gas was ordered to pay $307,500 which includes the maximum fine of $75,000 and the penalty assessment of $232,500.

The fine represents being fined $25,000 a day for each day that it failed to notify the California Office of Emergency Services about the leak.

Several other penalties were assessed in the plea agreement – but not to the satisfaction of Porter Ranch residents.

No restitution

Attorney Manuel A. Abascal told the court: “The DA wasn’t agitated to seek restitution for the victims.

“You’ve heard from individuals who haven’t been paid a dime,” he told the judge. “Restitution is very much on the table.

“We made our request (for restitution) because normally the request would have been made by the DA

‘They didn’t do it so we had to do it ourselves”

Abascal cited cases in law to make his point that restitution was a viable option for the judge to consider.  Lawyers representing the gas company, however, citing their own cases in law said the place for restitution is in a civil court.

“We recognize the individuals who spoke today and talked about their personal issues,” gas company attorney Brentford Ferreira said. “But, ultimately, the law is not on their side.

“We have a binding plea agreement in place, that was accepted and approved by the court,” he said.

In the end, the judge agreed and upheld the controversial plea deal but, not until he explained what he described as the challenging role faced by prosecutors in the case.

At one point, he called the case a “hideously complex situation.”

“Could things have been done differently? The answer is maybe,” he said.

Three days in October

For three days in late October 2015, SoCal Gas violated the state’s Health and Safety Code when it failed to report the release of “hazardous material” to the California Office of Emergency Services and to the local Certified Unified Program Agency, the court learned in September.

The misdemeanor complaint alleging the violation was filed on Feb. 2 by District Attorney Jackie Lacey.

Lacey said in a news release at the time that the $4 million settlement would require the utility to pay the maximum fine authorized by law and to adopt safety measures beyond those required by federal and state laws at its Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility.

The “hazardous material” released during the 3-day period more than a year ago, according to prosecutors, was methane, methyl mercaptan, butyl mercaptan, benzene and butane.

The gas leak, which began in October 2105 and was capped in February 2016, spewed massive amounts of gas into the atmosphere, prompting a state of emergency, widespread evacuations of the area and the filing of criminal charges against SoCal Gas.

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