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L.A. school district could close two schools because of Porter Ranch gas leak

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An ongoing natural gas leak near Porter Ranch prompts some parents to call for area schools to be relocated.

Los Angeles school district officials are developing a plan to relocate students at two elementary schools affected by a nearby natural gas leak, The Times has learned.

Under plans that have been under discussion, students at Porter Ranch Community School and Castlebay Lane could be moved to a currently closed campus or to other schools with space, said officials who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak.

Odor from the gas leak has been an irritant and a distraction — and has affected attendance among staff and students at the schools, according to the district and the teachers union.

The Board of Education is likely to take up the topic at a Thursday meeting, where board members also are expected to resume deliberating over the choice of the next leader for the nation’s second-largest school system.

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The gas being released is mostly methane, which is not dangerous and does not pose long-term health risks, the L.A. County Department of Public Health said. But an assessment by the department determined that mercaptans, the nontoxic odorants added to natural gas to assist in leak detection, are causing short-term health effects that should go away once the odors cease.

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Residents have linked the fumes to nausea, headaches, nosebleeds and other illnesses -- some worrying that their health has been seriously affected. More than 1,000 complaints have been lodged with South Coast Air Quality Management District, with more coming in each day.

The Los Angeles city attorney and a local family have sued the gas company.

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For the record

10:19 a.m.: An earlier version of this post reported that the city of Los Angeles had sued the gas company. L.A. City Atty. Mike Feuer filed the lawsuit, acting on behalf of the people of California.

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A rotten-egg-like stench has lingered over Porter Ranch, in the northwest San Fernando Valley, since Oct. 23, when Southern California Gas Co. detected a leak in a well at its Aliso Canyon facility.

Under orders from the county health department, the gas company is paying to relocate nearly 350 households affected by the odors, placing them in hotels or other temporary housing, and is in the process of moving residents from more than 500 other homes.

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 is testing an odor-neutralizing chemical it wants to spray into the air -- an idea met with skepticism by residents and air quality officials.

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The California Air Resources Board produced a report that found 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.

The L.A. Unified School District began its own monitoring of air quality at the schools Nov. 30.

Already this month, district officials sent letters to parents pledging assistance for individual families who wish to relocate to another campus or to set up a home schooling arrangement. Closing the campuses entirely would represent a significantly accelerated response.

In a memo sent Friday to Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, district staff reported ongoing concern.

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“From these two weeks of monitoring, it is clear that the reported short-term symptoms of the gas leak are rising in overall numbers,” the memo says. “We have discussed these findings with the County Department of Public Health, and they are also receiving more calls about health complaints in the Porter Ranch community.”

Learning is being disrupted, according to the internal report.

The total number of visits to the health office at each school has increased and peaked recently on Dec. 9. Daily visits to the nurse’s station ranged from from 9 to 38, with headache and stomachache as the most common symptoms. There also were instances of nosebleeds, nausea and vomiting. About 42% of these students with symptoms were sent home.

Twitter: @howardblume

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