Back to school for children displaced by Los Angeles-area gas leak

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 11, 2016 6:06 AM

By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - In the latest disruption from the biggest methane gas leak in California history, nearly 2,000 Los Angeles children returning to class this week after winter break have been reassigned to schools outside the affected area over health concerns.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second-largest public school system, announced the plan after students described headaches, bloody noses, nausea and breathing irritations.

Eleven-year-old Cameron Michaels said he suffered daily health problems from the gas leak. "You can't focus, you can't concentrate, you can't learn at all," he said.

Hundreds of residents have reported similar symptoms to the Los Angeles County Public Health Department, said Dr. Cyrus Rangan, director of the toxics epidemiology program for the agency. County health officials said in a report the symptoms are likely temporary.

"I hope they're absolutely right, but I can't take that chance," said School Board member Scott Schmerelson, who led the student relocation effort. "I’d rather err on the side of safety."

Schmerelson's district includes the Porter Ranch community on the outskirts of Los Angeles near where the leak was first discovered in October in a cracked pipe at an underground storage field.

Methane, the main component of natural gas, is not considered toxic. Common sources of methane emissions include wetlands and livestock operations.

The leak has accounted for about a quarter of the state's total emissions of methane, which is seeping out of the ground at the site in amounts never before seen in California.

Methane is the second-most common human-generated greenhouse gas in the United States.

County health officials say the symptoms residents are describing are caused by the odorant added to natural gas.

Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency to address the leak. Southern California Gas Co, which owns the site, said drilling a relief well and repairing the broken pipe could take until late March.

On Monday, teachers invited parents to tour their children's new schools, about an 8-mile (13-km) drive from their former schools, ahead of the scheduled resumption of classes on Tuesday. Many of the relocated school children come from families already displaced by the leak and living in temporary housing at gas company expense.

"We are highly motivated to end the impact as quickly as possible," said Melissa Bailey, a gas company spokeswoman. The company, a division of Sempra Energy , has reported it faces 25 legal complaints over the leak.

(Editing by Sara Catania; Editing by James Dalgleish)