By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A California utility failed to protect residents from the largest methane leak in state history at its natural gas field near Los Angeles, a regional pollution watchdog said in a lawsuit filed against the company.
The suit, filed on Tuesday in Los Angeles Superior Court by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, seeks penalties against Southern California Gas Co of up to $250,000 a day for each of six pollution-related health and safety code violations.
The stench of odorized methane fumes has sickened scores of people since the leak began on Oct. 23 and has forced the utility to temporarily move residents and their belongings from more than 7,700 homes in the Porter Ranch community of northern Los Angeles at the edge of the leaking gas storage field.
"If people had stayed in their homes ... they would have continued to suffer significant or substantial injuries from odors from the leaking gas," according to the suit.
The company "failed to take corrective action within a reasonable period of time under the circumstances," according to the nine-page suit, which offered few specifics on its claims against SoCalGas.
SoCalGas declined to comment on the litigation.
Over the weekend, an air quality agency committee voted to make the gas utility pay for a study on the health effects of the leak.
The leak, which at its peak accounted for a quarter of California's greenhouse gas emissions from methane, has reduced in intensity as the utility has extracted gas from the site and reduced pressure on the well.
The violations stem from faulty well design and construction and failure to properly operate or inspect the natural gas field in Aliso Cayon, the lawsuit said.
The odorants in the leaking gas have caused headaches, dizziness, nausea and breathing irritations among nearby residents, the lawsuit and Los Angeles County health officials said.
The company, a division of Sempra Energy, stores natural gas at the field to supply customers. It said it wants to stop the leak by late February by digging a relief well that would bisect and shutter the leaking well.
California Governor Jerry Brown earlier this month declared an emergency over the leak, and the state has imposed new safety rules on natural gas storage.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis, Editing by Sara Catania and Grant McCool)