Capitol Alert

Assembly buries Aliso Canyon relief bill deemed ‘job killer’

Hillside homes near SoCal Gas Company’s Aliso Canyon storage on Dec. 23, 2015 in Porter Ranch, Calif.
Hillside homes near SoCal Gas Company’s Aliso Canyon storage on Dec. 23, 2015 in Porter Ranch, Calif. TNS

Following late-blooming resistance from business groups, a bill giving Porter Ranch residents more tools to seek legal redress for a gas leak fell far short in the California Assembly on Thursday.

A leaking well in the affluent southern California community spewed massive amounts of gas into the atmosphere for months, depressing property values and leading residents to complain of dizziness, vomiting and other symptoms. Legislators have already sent Gov. Jerry Brown a bill continuing a moratorium on injections into the troubled well.

But an effort to expand residents’ ability to bring lawsuits faltered on a 27-31 vote, nowhere near the 41 votes needed for passage. Six Democrats joined Republicans in voting against the bill, and 19 Democrats withheld votes.

Assembly Bill 2748 would protect people who win payouts for the short-term fallout from “environmental disasters,” including out-of-pocket expenses for food and shelter, from forfeiting their rights to bring future legal challenges. It would specify that a settlement does not release a polluter from future liability, and broaden the statute of limitations to sue for exposure to toxic or hazardous substances.

The leak has already prompted a surge of lawsuits against Southern California Gas Co, the Aliso Canyon well’s operator. Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, said the structure of some proposed payouts would prohibit people from future legal action, which he said would deprive people of justice and prevent claims for new leaks that occur.

“These families have a really, really tough decision when they go into court, and that’s because these companies are asking them to sign away all claims,” Gatto said. “If you go in and your oldest child has some health problems, you go in and you’re suing, they ask you to settle it and they want you to sign away claims for your whole family,” and “if the well leaks again, these residents are going to have to sign away all liability. Think how crazy that is.”

Before the bill hit the Assembly floor, a coalition of business groups and oil company associations circulated a letter warning the measure would “eliminate incentives to settle lawsuits and would instead expose businesses to multiple rounds of litigation.” The California Chamber of Commerce slapped its often-fatal “job killer” label on the measure.

Opponents slammed the bill as overly broad, warning that because it applies statewide to any “environmental disaster,” it would provide fodder for endless lawsuits rather than bring relief specifically to those affected by the Aliso Canyon leak.

“It’s a trial lawyer’s dream bill,” said Assemblyman Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita. “It is going to clog the courts. People are not going to be able to get remedies.”

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert