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Gas company to be arraigned over Los Angeles area methane leak

(Reuters) - Southern California Gas Co is to be arraigned on criminal charges on Wednesday over a huge methane leak near Los Angeles that forced thousands of residents from their homes, officials said.

A gas company sign marks a fence near the site of the Aliso Canyon storage field where gas has been leaking in Porter Ranch, California, United States, January 21, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

SoCalGas, a division of San Diego-based Sempra Energy, faces four misdemeanor charges for failing to report the release of hazardous materials from Oct. 23 to Oct. 26, and discharging air contaminants beginning on Oct. 23.

Attorneys for SoCalGas will attend Wednesday’s arraignment in Los Angeles County Superior Court in Santa Clarita, company spokesman Javier Mendoza said.

Mendoza said the company operated the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations, and did not believe a criminal prosecution was warranted.

If convicted, the company could be fined up to $25,000 a day for each day that it failed to report the gas leak to the California Office of Emergency Services, said county District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Jane Robison. The company also could be fined up to $1,000 per day for air pollution violations, she said.

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.

Methane fumes sickened scores of people and prompted the relocation of more than 6,600 households from the Porter Ranch community at the edge of the field.

Southern California Gas Co said last week that it had temporarily controlled the flow of natural gas spewing from a pipeline, but more work needed to be done before the leak would be permanently sealed.

“We provided a prompt notice of the leak to multiple agencies,” Mendoza said. He declined to provide a list of those agencies or say whether the California Office of Emergency Services was among them.

When asked how the company would plead to the charges, Mendoza said: “We do not believe that a criminal prosecution is warranted and we look forward to presenting evidence ... through the legal process.”

Robison said the company may not enter a plea on Wednesday.

Los Angeles County prosecutor Jackie Lacey filed the charges on Feb. 2, the same day California Attorney General Kamala Harris also sued the company. SoCalGas also faces a slew of private lawsuits filed on behalf of area residents.

Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Chris Reese and Alan Crosby