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Settlement reached over PG&E gas discharges that sickened students

Seventh Day Adventist school is relocating away from the utility yard on Santa Ana Road
The PG&E facility next door to the school is said to have released harmful gas on three occasions.
The new school was partially funded by PG&E. It is under construction and will open in April.

Three years after several incidents in which Hollister Seventh Day Adventist School students were sickened when Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) released methane gas from a Santa Ana Road facility, a civil settlement was reached on Jan. 27 requiring the utility to pay penalties and other costs amounting to $175,000. PG&E also agreed to help fund the relocation of the school.

San Benito County Superior Court approved the settlement related to the discharge of gas on three days in Feb. 2014 during pipeline integrity testing at PG&E’s gas distribution facility adjacent to the school at 2020 Santa Ana Road.

According to the permanent injunction filed by San Benito County District Attorney’s office to the county superior court, PG&E discharged 21,000 cubic feet of natural gas, which is considered an air contaminant, at 2 p.m. on Feb. 4, 2014. Then at 7:30 a.m., on Feb. 6, the facility discharged another 16,000 cubic feet of natural gas. And again, on Feb. 20, at 11 a.m., 37,000 cubic feet of gas was released into the air.

According to the official complaint for injunction, civil penalties, and other relief: “As a direct and proximate result, students exercising in the field at the school thereafter experienced headaches, dizziness, nausea, and watery eyes. One child felt nauseous, vomited, and went home sick.”

Later in the day after the first incident, the school contacted PG&E personnel and informed them that students were experiencing harmful health effects due to the natural gas discharge. Even though PG&E was aware of the effects of the gas discharge, the second discharge took place on Feb. 6 a half hour before the school day began, according to court documents.

The official complaint further stated that: “One child reported having a headache.Outdoor recesses and physical education classes were cancelled and the children were kept indoors for the duration of the school day.”

According to Barbara Thompson, principal and teacher, the school notified the Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District (MBUAPCD). After the district notified PG&E, the utility company stated that moving forward it would only perform the natural gas discharge process outside of the operation hours of the school. However, on Feb. 20 at approximately 11 a.m., the company again discharged natural gas into the air while students were present at the school. (7 a.m. to 7 p.m.).

Again, according to the complaint: “Teachers at the School reported that the natural gas and associated additives, such as mercaptan, penetrated the classrooms even with the doors and windows closed. Students reported headaches, nausea, and dizziness."

The principal allegedly asked PG&E to suspend venting activities until the lunch/recess period was complete but was told that the utility would continue to vent gas during the school’s hours of operation "because venting during other times would generate more complaints from the neighborhood," the complaint said. "Defendant would not agree to suspend the discharge until after the lunch recess period.”

San Benito County District Attorney Candice Hooper referred the case to the Circuit Prosecutor Project at the California District Attorneys Association for prosecution. Attorneys Matthew Carr and Kelly McDaniel worked to resolve the case at no cost to the county.

Hooper said the case was referred to the Circuit Prosecutor Project because it provides free legal representation to counties that do not have the appropriate depth of legal expertise in some instances. She said that even though the project conducted the investigation and prosecuted the case, it still reported to her office.

The District Attorney’s office alleged that PG&E had failed to take adequate measures to notify neighbors and students of the gas venting. As a result, some students fell ill and class schedules had to be altered. The settlement includes, among other things, an injunction forbidding similar violations of law, $175,000.00 in imposed civil penalties and costs, stayed penalties in the amount of $75,000, and the requirement of a new internal Gas Outreach Guide to serve as a written policy for notification of surrounding communities prior to similar gas venting activities.

In addition to this settlement, to further protect the community, PG&E elected to fund the relocation of the Hollister Seventh Day Adventist School to a site away from its gas distribution facility. Thompson said the move resulted from the incidents, but PG&E was not paying the entire cost of the relocation.

“They have allocated some funds that we can use which is worth more than the cost of the property,” she said.

Thompson said she was not at liberty to divulge the amount PG&E paid to the school, which currently has 35 students. The new Hollister S.D.A. Christian School is under construction on McCloskey Road and will be approximately 12,000 square feet. It will provide teaching capabilities for instructing students kindergarten through eighth grade in a multi-grade classroom setting. There will also be a music room, library, kitchen, and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) room. Thompson said the ribbon-cutting ceremony and time capsule burying for the new school is scheduled for April 30.

“The school will be open to anyone,” she said. “In fact, about 50 percent of our students are not Adventist students. They’re from throughout the community. Different faiths; no faiths.”

Thompson said now PG&E is cooperating and letting the school and surrounding neighborhood know when it will be releasing gas outside of normal school hours.  

“Since that event we’ve been in such good communication it hasn’t happened again,” she said as she related what happened during the first incident. “The kids were out during P.E. and the kids could smell it. That evening we got phone calls from parents complaining about their kids having headaches. The next day, the kids were uneasy, wondering if it was going to happen again.”

Thompson called PG&E and shortly afterward the air district became involved.

“They interviewed us and spoke to the parents,” she said.

Neither the school nor any parents that Thompson is aware of have taken legal action against PG&E. After the incidents and because PG&E would sometimes fence off part of the playground area during school operating hours, Thompson said she would ask the company if they could compensate the school for the times they made the playground inaccessible. Then one day, PG&E offered to buy the entire school.

“We came to an amicable agreement in April 2015,” she said, adding that the school is leasing the buildings until it moves to the new location. “It was a mutual agreement. We love PG&E, but we don’t want to be next to them. We’ve been great neighbors, but they don’t want to be next to us, either.”

According to the final judgment: “Is not an admission or denial by Defendant (PG&E)  of any allegation in the complaint, any request for relief, any issue of law or fact or any violation of any law in the above-captioned matter. The parties believe that the resolution embodied in this Final Judgment is fair and reasonable.”

PG&E released a statement that, considering how the discharge incidents were described in the complaint for injunction, differs from the account offered by the school — particularly as to whether the gas discharges were intentional or not.

“The health and safety of the public is of the upmost importance whenever we conduct these important gas safety procedures. In February 2014, PG&E conducted gas venting procedures at our Hollister facility as part of in-line inspection of gas transmission line 300A. This work is done at regular intervals to understand any changes in the pipeline and to ensure the safety of the public. When conducting this work in 2014, PG&E unexpectedly vented gas in a particular area of the city, causing concerns from the local community. We took the concerns to heart, and proactively responded to those concerns by working on a solution with local community leaders. We look forward to continuing to work closely with San Benito County to ensure the continual health and safety of the local community.”

About:
John Chadwell (John Chadwell)

Award-winning photojournalist. Published in magazines, newspapers, radio/TV, websites. BA in Mass Communications from Chapman University. Graduate studies at USC Cinema School. Wrote or doctored more than 30 movie screenplays. Script, "God's Club," released March 2016. Wrote eight novels, ranging from thrillers to horror with most recent, "The Ghost of the U-85."

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