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The kids of Porter Ranch: How spewing methane rocked their sense of safety

Gas leak forces kids to leave home, school
Porter Ranch children school orig_00005524

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Story highlights

  • Some residents chose relocation after biggest gas leak in California
  • Los Angeles Unified School district moved 1,860 students out of two schools
  • Utility company: Leak poses no imminent public safety risk; leak "temporarily controlled"

Porter Ranch, California (CNN)Cooper Stutler's teacher told his second-grade class to put their shirts over their noses as they crossed the playground to get snacks.

She didn't want them to "breathe the gas," Cooper says. "It smelled like rotten eggs."
    So he tried to inhale less air, hoping it wouldn't get into his lungs.
    "When I was smelling it, I would try to cup my hands over my mouth and try to breathe less, breathe the air less," fourth-grader Mia Deukmejian says. "I've had headaches and stomach aches."
    They are some of the youngest victims of the biggest gas leak in California history. The Aliso Canyon gas leak has driven at least 10,000 people from their homes in Porter Ranch, California, according to a Los Angeles city councilman.
    Cooper Stutler on the playground of Sunny Brae Avenue school. Nearly 2,000 students had to switch schools after the leak.
    Cooper remembers the change in the air distinctly after methane began spewing: "It smelled like rotten eggs," he says.
    The leak lacks the shocking imagery from when the Deep Water Horizon Oil rig burned in the Gulf of Mexico. But as clear methane gas gushes from a ruptured well at the massive storage facility, it is no less of a colossal, life-disrupting calamity for Porter Ranch residents.
    Some of the children have been uprooted, along with their families. They're living the physical impact from the disaster and the emotional toll too. They struggle to cope with new surroundings and see the stress in their parents' faces after being forced from their homes and schools.
    During the winter break, the Los Angeles Unified School district moved 1,860 children out of two Porter Ranch schools to two other campuses.
    "I was having constant nosebleeds," fourth-grader Taylor Lee says.
    Sempra Energy has met with residents and sends out regular updates on what is happening to the tank that ruptured. It gives regular updates on levels of Benzene in the air; the latest bulletin says the levels are lower than other communities not affected by the gas leak. But some families were still worried about the levels of this carcinogen that can cause cancer, and they temporarily relocated.
    Crews work to halt the gas flow from the leaking well in Porter Ranch.
    Utility company SoCal Gas has said, "the leak does not pose an imminent threat to public safety," but has apologized for the annoyance of the odorant in natural gas. On Thursday, 111 days after the leak was reported, SoCal said it "temporarily controlled the natural gas flow" and is in the "process of sealing the well and permanently stopping the leak" by pumping heavy liquids into the well.
    Residents who "temporarily relocated because of the odor from the gas leak" and the company hopes once the leak is fully contained residents can begin returning home from the temporary housing provided.
    Taylor's family took up SoCal's offer to relocate, at the utility's expense. But he is worried about his mother, a pharmacist who works in Oxnard, because she now drives 100 miles round trip every day.
    "She was so stressed out she had an anxiety attack," he says.
    Two attacks, his mother, Su Kim, clarifies. She's now on a two-week leave of absence because of the stress caused by the leak.

    'It's almost paralyzing'

    Dad: They took our kids' home
    Porter Ranch autism child family orig_00005526

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    David Donah chokes up, pausing for a moment at the thought of letting his children down.
    "I promised to keep them safe," he says. "We did everything we could think of to make sure of that."
    But he couldn't have anticipated what happened in his neighborhood. When Donah and his wife moved into their new home, they couldn't have been happier, more hopeful.
    "We begged and borrowed from our working-class mom and dad to get this house. To get this place where our kids could be safe, where there may be a good school, because the school wasn't built yet," Donah says.
    His wife was pregnant with their first child, Chase.
    "I painted every wall in this house," Donah says. "My dad painted a mural on Chase's wall. It was ours."
    Getting the house took all their resources. But it was worth it. Their child could play in the very same park and walk the very same sidewalks chosen by Stephen Spielberg to film one of the most popular children's movies, "E.T."
    "If there's a place where you could literally picture kids playing all the time it's where Steven Spielberg put these kids playing in 'E.T.,' right?" he says.
    But seven years and a second child later their hopes turned to fear, uncertainty and anger. The family suddenly found themselves leaving their home and moving into a hotel, worried about what their children are going through.
    Chase Donah's family says he is having trouble adjusting after having to move because of the gas leak.
    "You hear about the health effects, you hear about the environmental impact and both those are disastrous and just scary is the only word I can think of," Donah says. "But nobody's talking about the thousands of kids that live up here."
    As his son Chase plays behind him, Donah says if you listen closely you can hear him constantly talking to himself, trying to sort what is going in his head. He has autism and the move exacerbates his challenges.
    "It set him back in a way that I can't tell you how upsetting it is as a family. Change is scary to them in a way that is even more than it is to someone who is not on the autism spectrum," he says. "It's almost paralyzing to them."

    'I just want this to stop'

    The kids from Castlebay Lane Elementary trek to Sunny Brae Avenue Elementary School in Winnetka, about 8 miles from their old campus. Cooper Stutler used to walk or have a two minute drive to school.
    "(Now) it's like a 20 minute difference, so we have to wake up earlier," Cooper says while sitting in his new school's library with two other children. "It's been kind of hard the last few days."
    Mia Deukmejian was one of 2,000 students displaced from their schools in Porter Ranch.
    Mia Deukmejian says she misses the old school, where the classroom was larger.
    "I just want this to stop and I want to be back at Castlebay," Mia says, frustrated she and her classmates had to move because of the leak. "Everything just fell apart."
    Taylor Lee says the long drive takes away from homework time and his grades are dipping slightly.
    Taylor lives with his sister Catelyn, a second-grader, his mother and father in the hotel room where he now studies.
    His family returns to their Porter Ranch townhouse every few days to pick up laundry, and they were feeding their pet rabbit, Coco.
    Taylor Lee moved from his Porter Ranch townhome to the Hilton Universal.
    "But sadly my pet died," Taylor says. "Since some (wild) animals knew we were gone, some animal attacked my bunny. He died."
    Taylor speaks for his colleagues when he says he wants to return to Castlebay Lane and wants the gas leak ordeal over.
    "Shut it down and fix it," he says. "Because it's affecting my health and other people's health, too."

    'Mad doesn't describe what I'm feeling'

    The Donahs' home looks exactly as the day they left: On the living room wall inside their home three pieces of paper mark Chase's progress: A happy face to reinforce good behavior. The last page is dated December 2, 2016 -- the last day they spent in their home.
    Donah shares the frustration he has with the gas company. "What were they doing? What were they checking?" he asks.
    Chase and London Donah's parents say nothing hurt more than having to tell their kids their home isn't safe.
    Donah can't understand how the company and the regulators couldn't see the leak coming. His family isn't the only one angry. The lawsuits are now flowing, too. Not only have some of the residents sued, but so has the California attorney general. They accuse Sempra Energy of failing to disclose the leak in a timely manner and failing to plug the leak quickly. The company says it will defend itself "vigorously through the judicial process." There are 114 other wells used in the same hills.
    "So, I'm supposed to somehow tell my kids that they are safe with 114 ticking time bombs essentially up on the hill above their homes," Donah says. "You want to talk about mad, mad doesn't describe what I'm feeling."
    His daughter, 5-year-old London, says she wants to go home and offers her solution.
    "I wish they could just tape it. If it was broken they would just have to use a big duct tape and put it around where the hole is."
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