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L.A. Unified will relocate Porter Ranch students and could sue over gas leak costs

Los Angeles school district officials on Thursday authorized their legal staff to sue Southern California Gas Co. if necessary to recoup substantial costs piling up as a result of a leak in a natural gas storage well in Aliso Canyon.

The most significant expense so far is the Board of Education's decision, at the same meeting Thursday, to support a plan to relocate students and staff members at two Porter Ranch schools affected by the fumes.

The district did not release figures at its meeting because officials said they were still tallying the costs involved, said Mark Hovatter, head of facilities for the nation's second-largest school system.

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Attorneys from the gas company met Dec. 11 with Los Angeles schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines and other district officials, but the energy company made no commitment, Hovatter said.

The gas company is under orders from the county health department to pick up the bill for residents wishing to leave the area temporarily; so far, the company has received more than 4,500 inquiries about temporary housing, gas company spokesman Javier Mendoza said this week.

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

But for now, L.A. Unified is paying to relocate the students, teachers and staff.

Students at Porter Ranch Community School, which enrolls students in kindergarten through eighth grade, will resume classes after the winter break at Northridge Middle School. Students and staff at Castlebay Lane Charter Elementary will relocate to Sunny Brae Avenue Elementary in Winnetka.

The arrangement will continue through the end of the academic year in June. Families will be offered free busing from their home schools to the replacement campuses, and school leaders also are trying to shift after-school programs and other services.

"This has been a difficult decision because it will impact the lives of so many families," board member Scott Schmerelson, who represents the area, said in a statement. "I believe this is the right decision to protect the health of our students and employees and to stabilize the learning environment."

The board's approval was widely anticipated — teachers already had received packing boxes — and supporters of closing the schools did not bother to attend the meeting.

The presentation and discussion lasted more than an hour, in large measure because a group of parents spoke against the move, calling it unneeded and disruptive.

They cited the conclusions of local health officials, who have said the gas fumes could cause short-term complaints but pose no long-term risk.

"I think you're making a poor decision here," Jason Muckenthaler, the parent of a Porter Ranch kindergartner, told the school board. In an interview, he said that opinion is divided on the campuses and that district officials bowed to a group that voiced its concerns loudly, but that did not speak for all parents.

Schmerelson disagreed, saying he felt that the decision would be welcomed by most parents. He was certain, he added, that the move had the support of staff members.

"Teachers are so happy they are finally getting away from this toxic area," he said after the meeting.

Concerns have mounted since the leak was detected at the Aliso Canyon facility Oct. 23. The release is mostly methane, which is not dangerous outside of confined spaces 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 effects. Residents of the northwest San Fernando Valley community — including students in the two schools — have reported nausea, headaches, nosebleeds, vomiting and other symptoms.

A district report said the number of visits to the nurse rose to as high as 38 one day last week. Nurses sent home 42% of the students with health complaints.

Since the leak began, 86 students have checked out of Porter Ranch Community School and 30 others enrolled in independent study, which allows students to work mostly at home, said Vivian Ekchian, the senior administrator in that region. The campus started with about 1,100 students.

Of 750 students at Castlebay, 29 left the school and 97 signed up for independent study, Ekchian said.

In the last month, 11 teachers at the school have filed claims for workplace-related injuries; three teachers have requested transfers and the district had to fill 172 requests for substitute teachers, Ekchian added.

Student absences at the schools ballooned from 245 the week before the leak to 1,418 last week.

The situation was simply becoming too disruptive, officials said.

L.A. Unified's costs will include the purchase or rental of portable classrooms. The district also has been monitoring air quality, adding nursing staff, replacing air filters and installing air scrubbers, among other measures.

After unsuccessful attempts to plug the leak by pumping fluid into the well, the gas company is moving to a backup plan: drilling a relief well and then sealing off the leaking shaft, plugging it permanently with concrete. 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%.

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on December 18, 2015, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "District may sue over gas leak cost" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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