LAUSD works to close two Porter Ranch schools over gas leak

Los Angeles Unified School District officials were preparing Wednesday to close two elementary schools affected by a natural gas leak in Porter Ranch as many parents expressed rising fears over their children's health.

The Board of Education is scheduled to consider a proposal Thursday to relocate students and staff temporarily from Porter Ranch Community School and Castlebay Lane Charter School to other district sites when classes resume after the winter break.

A number of steps have already been taken, including placing air filters in every classroom, adding more nurses and conducting air quality monitoring at the two campuses, district officials said.

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But odors from the gas leak are distracting students and impeding learning, said a statement issued by school board member Scott M. Schmerelson and Northwest Supt. Vivian Ekchian.

The district is working to make the move "as seamless as possible," the statement said.

Concerns have mounted since the gas leak was detected at the Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon facility on Oct. 23. The release is mostly methane, which is not dangerous and poses no long-term health risks, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

But nontoxic odorants added to natural gas to help in detecting a leak appear to be causing short-term health affects. Residents of Porter Ranch, in the northwest San Fernando Valley, report suffering nausea, headaches, nosebleeds and other illnesses.

A district report said the number of visits to the nurse's stations at the schools rose to as high as 38 one day last week.

Headache and stomachache are the most common symptoms, with some students experiencing nosebleeds, nausea and vomiting. Forty-two percent of students exhibiting any of these symptoms have been sent home.

Many parents said they endorsed the relocation plan, even if it disrupts their child's education and potentially separates them from classmates and teachers. Samantha Kunkel said her seventh-grade twin girls love attending Porter Ranch Community School, but she removed them recently so that they can study independently at home.

"I was picking them up almost every day with headaches, nosebleeds, throwing up — enough for me to say, we're done until you guys figure this out," Kunkel said.

Many other children are doing fine, said Porter Ranch principal Mary Melvin, and classroom instruction at the K-8 campus has mostly been unaffected.

Melvin, though, was compiling information for district officials on the number of children who have been absent.

Yet despite the difficulties, "everyone still has the holiday spirit," Melvin said. Staff and students are planning to give a winter performance today, "Ghosts of Holidays Past and Present."

At Castlebay Charter, Arlette Eshraghi's two boys, in the fifth and third grade, are still in school, but she favors relocation. She said she's had to take her kids to the doctor a couple of times after they came down with illnesses. Even the family dog got sick, she said. The gas company has agreed to install an air scrubber at her home.

"It's a very hard decision," said Eshraghi. "Do I leave them in? Do I take them out? I'd rather err on the side of caution."

Some parents said the relocation plans are an overreaction. Dewayne Beckner said his second-grade daughter at Porter Ranch Community School is feeling no ill effects.

"Radiation from the sun is more likely to be a problem than this gas leak," Beckner said. "There's so much wind here, I don't know how anyone even smells it."

The South Coast Air Quality Management District has received more than 1,500 complaints of foul odors since the leak was detected, spokesman Sam Atwood said.

And the gas company, under orders from the county health department to pick up the bill for residents wishing to relocate, has received 4,550 calls about temporary housing.

About 1,800 households have been moved to hotels or other temporary accommodations, and nearly 1,200 more are considering their options, said gas company spokesman Javier Mendoza. An additional 887 have declined temporary housing or accepted it and then stopped, presumably to move back to their homes, Mendoza said.

After unsuccessful attempts to plug the leak by pumping fluid into the well, the gas company is moving to its backup plan: drilling a relief well and then sealing off the leaking well, plugging it permanently with cement. The process could take as long as four months.

The company also wants to test an airborne odor-neutralizing chemical, an idea that has met with skepticism from residents and air quality officials.

A report by the California Air Resources Board found that the leak is releasing about 50,000 kilograms of methane an hour, so much that it's boosting California's emissions of the potent greenhouse gas by 25%. Local air quality officials have cited the company for public nuisance violations.

On Thursday, the board will consider a resolution declaring that emergency conditions exist at the Porter Ranch and Castlebay campuses. The board will also consider authorizing its attorneys to sue Southern California Gas and parent company Sempra Energy to recover all district costs incurred as a result of the gas leak.

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

carla.rivera@latimes.com

Twitter: @carlariveralat

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on December 17, 2015, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "PORTER RANCH GAS LEAK - Schools may shut - LAUSD aims to relocate students at two fume-affected campuses" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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