LA prosecutors file criminal charges in methane leak near Los Angeles

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Criminal Charges Filed Against LA Gas Company

LOS ANGELES, Feb 2 (Reuters) - Los Angeles prosecutors filed criminal charges against the Southern California Gas company on Tuesday over a huge methane leak near the city that has forced thousands of residents from their homes since October.

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The four misdemeanor charges accuse SoCalGas, a division of San Diego-based Sempra Energy, of failing to report the release of hazardous materials following the underground pipeline rupture and discharging air contaminants.

"While we recognize that neither the criminal charges nor the civil lawsuits will offer the residents of Los Angeles County a complete solution, it is important that Southern California Gas Co. be held responsible for its criminal actions," District Attorney Jackie Lacey said in a written statement.

Lacey's move came on the same day that California Attorney General Kamala Harris sued Southern California Gas Co, accusing the utility of violating state health and safety laws by failing to promptly control the escaping gas and report the leak to authorities.

Photos related to the leak:

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Aliso Canyon, California gas leak
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LA prosecutors file criminal charges in methane leak near Los Angeles
Porter Ranch residents hold a portrait of Governor Jerry Brown as they protest outside a meeting of the Air Quality Management Board (AQMD) over the continuing gas leak that started in October and which has forced thousands of residents to flee from the Los Angeles suburb of Porter Ranch, California on January 23, 2016. The governor of California, Jerry Brown recently declared a state of emergency in the Los Angeles community where a massive gas leak has forced the evacuation of nearby residents from their homes. / AFP / Mark Ralston (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Gurbux Singh joins other Porter Ranch residents to protest outside a meeting of the Air Quality Management Board (AQMD)over the continuing gas leak that started in October and which has forced thousands of residents to flee from the Los Angeles suburb of Porter Ranch, California on January 23, 2016. The governor of California, Jerry Brown recently declared a state of emergency in the Los Angeles community where a massive gas leak has forced the evacuation of nearby residents from their homes. / AFP / Mark Ralston (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
DIAMOND BAR , CA., JANUARY 20, 2016: Porter Ranch residents and activists protesting the gas leak in Aliso Canyon hold their signs during a meeting of the South Coast AQMD January 20, 2016. The South Coast Air Quality Management District board in Diamond Bar listened to testimony from the public and from the Southern California Gas Company over the gas leak in Porter Ranch. The hearings focused on a proposed order to cut the odors from the Aliso Canyon gas leak and to possibly shut down the well permanently. The board agreed that the hearings will be continued until next Saturday at a venue closer to the gas leak (Photo by Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
DIAMOND BAR , CA., JANUARY 20, 2016: Porter Ranch activists (L-R) Dr. Leah Garland, Walker Foley and Alexandra Nagy chant and cheer in front of the South Coast Air Qulaity Management District offices in Diamond Bar prior to the board meeting Jnauary 20, 2016. The South Coast Air Quality Management District board in Diamond Bar listened to testimony from the public and from the Southern California Gas Company over the gas leak in Porter Ranch. The hearings focused on a proposed order to cut the odors from the Aliso Canyon gas leak and to possibly shut down the well permanently. There was no resolution to the issue today and the meeting will be continued until next Saturday at a venue closer to the gas leak (Photo by Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
DIAMOND BAR , CA., JANUARY 20, 2016: South Coast Air Quality Management District Board Chairman Edward Camarena listens to lawyers and advisors during a recess in the hearings in Diamond Bar where the public and representatives from the Southern California Gas Company are testifying about the gas leak in Porter Ranch January 20, 2016. The hearings focused on a proposed order to cut the odors from the Aliso Canyon gas leak and to possibly shut down the well permanently (Photo by Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
PORTER RANCH, CA - JANUARY 19: Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, right, with Councilmember Mitch Englander, center, walk out of the Southern California Gas Co's Aliso Canyon Storage Facility to talk to media about their observations after they toured the site on January 19, 2016 in Porter Ranch, California. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
PORTER RANCH, CA - JANUARY 19: Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, right, with Clouncilmember Mitch Englander, center, talks about his observations after they toured the site of the natural gas leak at Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon Storage Facility on January 19, 2016 in Porter Ranch, California. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
PORTER RANCH, CA - JANUARY 19: Local residents Maureen Capra, left, and Lin McDonough, right, listen to Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, with Councilmember Mitch Englander, and State Assemblymember Matthew Dababneh, talk about their observations after they toured the site of the natural gas leak at Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon Storage Facility on January 19, 2016 in Porter Ranch, California. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
PORTER RANCH, CA - JANUARY 19: Local resident Maureen Capra holds sign as she listens to Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, with Councilmember Mitch Englander, and State Assemblymember Matthew Dababneh, talk about their observations after they toured the site of the natural gas leak at Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon Storage Facility on January 19, 2016 in Porter Ranch, California. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
PORTER RANCH, CA - JANUARY 16: Sharon Dormani testifies at a public hearing before the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) regarding a proposed stipulated abatement order to stop a nearby massive natural gas leak, on January 16, 2016 in Granada Hills, near Porter Ranch, California. More than 80,000 metric tons of methane gas have spewed from the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility since October 23, causing thousands of Porter Ranch residents to leave their homes, and the closures of two schools where students are being bussed to campuses farther away from the gas. State officials are now concerned that a seventh attempt to plug the well may have increased the chance of a blowout, which would greatly increase the release of gas as well as the risk of a massive well fire if ignited by a spark. The Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) hopes to repair the leak by sometime in March. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
PORTER RANCH, CA - JANUARY 16: A woman holds a sign while attending a public hearing before the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) regarding a proposed stipulated abatement order to stop a nearby massive natural gas leak, on January 16, 2016 in Granada Hills, near Porter Ranch, California. More than 80,000 metric tons of methane gas have spewed from the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility since October 23, causing thousands of Porter Ranch residents to leave their homes, and the closures of two schools where students are being bussed to campuses farther away from the gas. State officials are now concerned that a seventh attempt to plug the well may have increased the chance of a blowout, which would greatly increase the release of gas as well as the risk of a massive well fire if ignited by a spark. The Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) hopes to repair the leak by sometime in March. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
Residential homes in the Porter Ranch Estates community sit at the foothills near the Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon facility in Porter Ranch, California, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 15, 2016. Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency to protect residents from gas that has been flowing from the Southern California Gas Co., a unit of Sempra, underground storage site near Los Angeles. State and federal agencies are investigating the incident while Southern California Gas has paid to temporarily relocate about 2,500 residents from the Porter Ranch neighborhood, located about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the broken well. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Residential homes in the Porter Ranch Estates community sit at the foothills near the Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon facility in Porter Ranch, California, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 15, 2016. Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency to protect residents from gas that has been flowing from the Southern California Gas Co., a unit of Sempra, underground storage site near Los Angeles. State and federal agencies are investigating the incident while Southern California Gas has paid to temporarily relocate about 2,500 residents from the Porter Ranch neighborhood, located about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the broken well. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A worker walks past the Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon facility entrance in Porter Ranch, California, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 15, 2016. Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency to protect residents from gas that has been flowing from the Southern California Gas Co., a unit of Sempra, underground storage site near Los Angeles. State and federal agencies are investigating the incident while Southern California Gas has paid to temporarily relocate about 2,500 residents from the Porter Ranch neighborhood, located about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the broken well. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A 'No Trespassing' sign sits on a hill at the Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon facility in Porter Ranch, California, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 15, 2016. Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency to protect residents from gas that has been flowing from the Southern California Gas Co., a unit of Sempra, underground storage site near Los Angeles. State and federal agencies are investigating the incident while Southern California Gas has paid to temporarily relocate about 2,500 residents from the Porter Ranch neighborhood, located about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the broken well. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A residential home with solar panels sits near the Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon facility in Porter Ranch, California, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 15, 2016. Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency to protect residents from gas that has been flowing from the Southern California Gas Co., a unit of Sempra, underground storage site near Los Angeles. State and federal agencies are investigating the incident while Southern California Gas has paid to temporarily relocate about 2,500 residents from the Porter Ranch neighborhood, located about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the broken well. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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The lawsuit also cites environmental damage caused by the uncontrolled release of 80,000 metric tons of methane, the prime component of natural gas and a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

The leak stems from an underground pipeline rupture at the company's 3,600-acre (1,457-hectare) Aliso Canyon natural gas storage field. The largest such leak ever in California, at its height it accounted for a fourth of all methane emissions statewide.

The lawsuit amends a civil complaint brought in December by the Los Angeles city attorney and later joined by Los Angeles County. It seeks civil penalties and court orders requiring the utility to immediately take all steps necessary to mitigate the leak, repair the damage and prevent future discharges.

Several attempts to halt the methane release have failed, but the company said it hopes to plug the leak by the end of the month through a relief well.

The company said in a statement it would "respond to the lawsuit through the judicial process."

Last week, the South Coast Air Quality Management District filed a separate lawsuit against SoCal Gas seeking civil penalties of up to $250,000 a day for each of six pollution-related health and safety code violations.

The methane fumes have sickened scores of people and prompted the relocation of more than 6,600 households from the Porter Ranch community at the edge of the crippled underground gas storage field.

More than 20 private lawsuits have been filed on behalf of some of those residents.

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