School district at odds with gas company

Study confirms pipelines a danger to students

REAL CONCERN—Somis School Principal Colleen Robertson holds a piece of string showing how far beneath ground the gas pipelines under the school’s playground area lie.

REAL CONCERN—Somis School Principal Colleen Robertson holds a piece of string showing how far beneath ground the gas pipelines under the school’s playground area lie.

It’s meant as an annual practice drill, but the Great California Shakeout exercise earlier this month drove home an unsettling reality for Somis Union School District Superintendent Colleen Robertson.

Should a real quake rupture the gas lines buried 30 inches below ground on either side of the campus, Robertson said, she’s certain she would have no safe place to evacuate her 230 students.

DANGER?—Caution stickers are placed on white posts where gas pipelines run beneath the playground at Somis School.

DANGER?—Caution stickers are placed on white posts where gas pipelines run beneath the playground at Somis School.

“I actually had one of the fire battalion chiefs come to the school that day and walk the campus to help show me where we should go. What should be our gathering place?” Robertson said while seated at a table in her office.

She pointed at red lines on a map, saying, “Because, pipeline, pipeline, school—where do we go?”

A 22-inch-diameter line was installed on North Street along the front of the school in 1971, Southern California Gas Co. spokesperson Anne Silva said.

Two other pipelines, 18 inches and 16 inches in diameter, were buried in 1944 and 1960. They run across the school property line between the athletic fields and the playground, she said.

Before installing the lines, the gas company received “all of the proper right-of-way channels and approvals,” including from the school district, Silva said.

Robertson, who became superintendent in 2011, said she learned about the pipelines in November 2012, when officials were considering building a parking lot on part of the school’s playing field across from Rice Street.

Longtime school board member and local historian Bob Fulkerson, who owns Fulkerson’s Hardware, was the first to bring it up.

“Bob says, ‘We could put a parking lot there, but what about the pipelines.’ And I said, ‘Wait a minute. What pipelines. What are you saying here?’”

In early 2013, a risk-assessment study conducted for the district by consultant Terraphase Engineering confirmed her worse fears, Robertson said. The report concluded that the pipelines pose a safety risk to her students.

“What he told me was frightening,” Robertson said. “What he said basically was, ‘You’re sitting on a keg of dynamite.’”

Jeff Raines, principal geotechnical engineer at the consulting firm’s Oakland office, declined to release a copy of the report for this article, saying it was not a public record.

Since Terraphase’s study, the district succeeded in getting local voters to pass a $9-million construction bond in 2013 to build a new school, and officials secured a $4.5-million provisional hardship grant from the state in March of that year, Robertson said.

But plans for the new school are now stuck atop a filing cabinet in Robertson’s outer office.

There, several white plastic binders containing a half-milliondollars’ worth of environmental reports and other state-required documents await final architectural designs, called schematics, for the new school.

Until the Division of the State Architect approves the blueprints, the State Allocation Board won’t release the district’s hardship funds.

But even with the funds, the district has a gap of between $8 million and $10 million in its construction budget. Rather than return to voters for a new bond, Robertson said, the district is working to target potential corporate donors through a marketing campaign.

“We know exactly what we want; we just don’t have the money. If you have only X amount of dollars, it becomes a matter of, do you have a smaller cafeteria, smaller lunch area—how do you prioritize construction? But we’re pushing ahead. This Wednesday I’m meeting again with the architect,” said Robertson, who’s been working for more than a year on the project.

She believes blueprints could be ready for state approval in five to six months.

Robertson also is in negotiations with the Roman Catholic Archdioceses of Los Angeles to buy a 10-acre property about a block away from Somis Union Elementary School, but things haven’t moved quickly enough for the superintendent.

“The risk-assessment team said, and this is a quote, ‘It would be unconscionable to stay.’ Every morning I wake up with that fear in the back of my mind. To me, I’m responsible. I’m responsible for the children, I’m responsible for the staff, and if I don’t have a clear, safe exit plan. I’m not comfortable with that,” she said.

The gas company doesn’t feel it’s necessary to move the school, Silva said.

“The Somis School District has independently decided to move the school,” she said. “While we understand the superintendent’s concerns, we have done all we can do to assure her that our lines are safe.”

Hydrotesting, using water under high pressure, was performed on the lines in 2013, the gas company spokesperson said.

“The strength test pressure was greater than 140 percent of the maximum operating pressure. The pipeline was leak-free at this higher pressure.”

Besides routine maintenance, the gas company conducted indepth tests on all of the lines in 2007 and 2008, including checking for abnormalities and making corrosion assessments, she said.

“As a result of these tests, SoCal Gas is confident that these pipelines are safe and fit for service,” Silva said.

Robertson said the assurances give her no comfort.

“The gas company can monitor all they want, but they can’t give me assurances that nothing’s going to happen to those pipelines.”

Ninety-year-old school

Somis School was built in 1925. Originally a one-story building with three classrooms, the school was extended in 1935 when a bungalow was built. An auditorium was added in 1939, and classrooms were renovated in 1953.

Four classrooms were added in 1956, and additional improvements have been added since, according to the state Office of Historic Preservation.

When water came seeping through the concrete floor of the main building last year, plumbers dug up 90-year-old pipe “held together with rust,” Robertson said. No one could find the original blueprints for the water lines.

“We ended up turning the water off in that part of the building and bringing water over and down to the three classrooms that lost their water,” she said. “The school is aging in general. As charming and beautiful as it is, those things are going to continue to happen.”

Robertson disputed the assertion that a new school could be built on the same site.

“The gas company keeps saying it’s no big deal, everything’s safe and why worry, but I do worry,” she said. “We’re not moving to get a better view. Our risk-assessment folks, they’re saying it’s time to move, so we’re moving.

“This school has served the community for 91 years. Now it’s time to build a new school that can meet our community’s needs for the next 100 years.”