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Anxious Porter Ranch residents weigh legal response to massive gas leak

They came prepared for war, more than 1,500 concerned residents of an upscale San Fernando Valley neighborhood and a battery of seasoned lawyers who gathered in a church hall to discuss their response to a massive natural gas leak less than two miles away.

The room erupted in applause Thursday night when Rex Parris, a lead attorney in several lawsuits already filed against Southern California Gas Co., promised an auspicious end game: “When the dust settles in this case, that gas storage facility will be shut down,” Parris said.

That strategy is being developed by four law firms Parris enlisted on behalf of thousands of Porter Ranch residents. “You either close it down,” he said afterward, “or have the company buy up the surrounding properties. It would be cheaper to just close it down.”

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Those arguments will take years to resolve. But a possible shutdown provides hope to residents eager for media and government attention to their plight even as they realize the notice will probably depress property values in a community once considered an idyllic suburb.

More than 4,000 families in the area have applied for temporary alternative housing as the company attempts to plug the well it says began spewing mostly methane on Oct. 23. SoCal Gas said the only solution lies in relief wells being drilled to intercept and plug the damaged well.

Hundreds of people blame the emissions for recent ailments, including nosebleeds, vomiting, hives, headaches and respiratory illnesses.

As problems continue, rumors and concerns have grown. Despite assurances by public health officials that the emissions have no harmful long-term effects, some residents now say they see possible links between living near the largest reservoir of stored natural gas in the United States and their diagnoses of esophageal cancer and fibrous tumors.

At Thursday’s meeting at Shepherd of the Hills Church, a panel of experts in neurology, pediatrics, pulmonology, psychology, emergency critical care and veterinary medicine urged residents to document every physical ailment they experience that might be related to the leaking well, from irritability and nightmares to nausea and vomiting. Attendees were also asked to keep track of what they’re spending.

Veterinarian David Smith, who said he has “seen dozens of pets getting killed or becoming ill” since the leak was disclosed, urged residents to remove their pets from exposure.

Speakers included environmental lawyer and activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose firm has joined in filing a class-action lawsuit against SoCal Gas aimed at making state regulatory authorities accountable for failing to prevent the leak and to lay the groundwork for seeking an injunction to stop operations at the gas storage facility.

Among those listening was David Milney, 68, who moved to the area in 1985. “This is really scary stuff,” he said. “We still aren’t sure how badly we were affected.”

Brian and Christine Katz, who share a Porter Ranch home with five children, were among the first residents to file a lawsuit accusing SoCal Gas and its parent firm, Sempra Energy, of failing to operate the site properly.

“It’s unreal,” said Christine Katz, whose family is relocating to a house that SoCal Gas has agreed to lease at a rate of $8,000 per month in nearby Newbury Park.

“Just a few months ago, we were a normal family with kids, dogs and cats,” she said. “Now, we’re dealing with physical problems, which are unbelievably painful and stressful because babies are involved.”

Her 2 1/2 -year-old daughter Ava has spent four nights in the emergency care unit of a local hospital for upper respiratory symptoms, Christine Katz said. The youngest also suffers from persistent rashes and painful nausea, her mother said.

Like many Porter Ranch residents, the family was distressed to learn from state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources maps that capped and idle wells are underground within a few blocks of their home.

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Those wells are among at least 30 idle and buried wells in the Porter Ranch community that residents say they were unaware of until the leak touched off their inquiries. Now, as suspicions and fears grow, some residents wonder if those wells serve as pathways for gas leaking out of SoCal Gas’ Aliso Canyon Oil Field, which includes more than 90 active gas storage injection wells.

In the month before the company’s announcement of the leak, more than 45 wells outside Porter Ranch injected more than 5.7 billion cubic feet of gas into the reservoir.

At the church Thursday, some residents speculated that Gov. Jerry Brown has not become involved in the dispute because his sister is a paid Sempra Energy board member.

On Friday, the governor sent a letter to SoCal Gas urging faster action and saying he has asked the state attorney general’s office to coordinate investigations underway by several state agencies.

Adding to the company’s woes, the L.A. County district attorney’s office confirmed Friday that its environmental/occupational safety and health section is investigating for possible criminal violations. Jane Robison, a district attorney’s spokeswoman, declined to elaborate.

The Aliso Canyon site has a history of problems. A blowout and fire occurred at one of the wells at the site on Dec. 18, 1968, when an operator attempted to remove two gas-lift valves, according to state records of the site. The derrick and other equipment were destroyed, but there were no injuries. The area was far less populated at that time.

The well was brought under control after 17 days and a loss of 100 million cubic feet of gas by a crew led by Paul Neal “Red” Adair, the Texan who forged a legend capping runaway oil well gushers and battling their raging fires.

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

Times staff writer Tony Barboza contributed to this report.

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