Sempra Energy’s natural gas utility Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) on Tuesday agreed to pay up to $4.3 million for penalties and to implement an infrared leak detection system to settle a case brought by Los Angeles County that is tied to the Aliso Canyon underground storage facility leak.

The criminal case is considered minor compared to the pending civil cases, for which Sempra in the past estimated would be mostly covered by $1 billion in insurance coverage.

In April, a court hearing on the combined lawsuits drew 80 attorneys representing 73 separate law firms and thousands of plaintiffs in 131 separately filed legal actions that are all pending (see Daily GPI, June 8).

As the owner/operator of the state’s largest gas storage facility, SoCalGas was targeted with criminal charges by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s (DA) Office early this year (see Daily GPI, Feb. 17). The utility originally was arraigned on four misdemeanor charges for failing to report the release of hazardous materials from Oct. 23-Oct. 26, 2015 and for discharging air contaminants beginning on Oct. 23.

SoCalGas calculated that it could pay up to $4.3 million for the settlement, which includes a maximum fine of $75,000, a penalty of $232,000 and more than $245,000 for a hazardous materials investigation by Los Angeles County firefighters.

The financial brunt of the settlement, though, would come from installing and maintaining an infrared leak-detection system that is expected to cost more than $1 million and require costs estimated at more than $2 million to hire staff and monitor the system with six full-time employees over the next three years.

The leak-monitoring system goes beyond federal and state requirements, county DA Jackie Lacey said. The settlement would create “a safer facility for its employees, the environment and the surrounding communities,” Lacey said.

“SoCalGas is committed to working with its regulators to address issues with respect to the Aliso Canyon facility,” a utility spokesperson said. “The agreement, which provides for the implementation of certain approved operational enhancements, including updated notification, monitoring, and training procedures, is another important step in our efforts to put the leak behind us and to win back the trust of the community. These are in addition to other enhancements that have already been instituted by the company.”

Food & Water Watch senior organizer Alexandra Nagy downplayed the the infra-red monitoring system requirement, claiming that the “state-mandated monitoring shows that not a single storage well can be cleared for operation without repairs.”Nagy downplayed the the infra-red monitoring system requirement, claiming that the “state-mandated monitoring shows that not a single storage well can be cleared for operation without repairs.”

As the state investigates the cause of the four-month-long leak, regulators have mandated a six-part storage well testing process for SoCalGas (see Daily GPI, March 29). The utility is in the process testing 114 aging underground wells, but it recently said only about 20% had passed all of the tests (see Daily GPI, Aug. 17).

Residents and environmental activists maintain the storage facility leak unleashed numerous public health risks and have said the facility is no longer essential. However, state utilities and regulatory officials noted there have been no third-party confirmed health risks and the facility is an essential part of Southern California’s energy reliability.

Food & Water Watch, which is advocating for the permanent closure of Aliso Canyon, said no court fine would make the 44-year-old facility safe. It noted that a small leak was reported by SoCalGas on Monday at the facility (see Daily GPI, Sept. 13).

The new leak indicates that the 86 Bcf capacity, 3,600-acre facility is “beyond simple repair and continues to pose a threat to the health of families” in the nearby upscale Porter Ranch residential community, said Food & Water Watch’s Nagy.