L.A. district mired in controversy over toxins

Sharp criticism being leveled at the Los Angeles Unified School District for its environmental record shows why it’s vital for districts to perform toxicological surveys of new school sites before construction begins—and to monitor existing sites on a regular basis.

As the Board of Education for the nation’s second largest public school district decides whether to resume construction on a high school being built atop a toxic oil field, a new report suggests the district continues to have problems with hazardous chemicals and fumes at its existing campuses as well.

Eleven public schools in Los Angeles have troubling environmental records, including poor safety systems and ill-prepared maintenance workers, the city’s Daily News reported Oct. 30.

The report came just days after a special commission recommended that the district continue work at the Belmont Learning Complex in downtown Los Angeles, despite finding that it sits atop a site polluted with explosive methane and potentially deadly hydrogen sulfide.

Critics of the district say officials are not handling hazardous materials problems well at existing schools and shouldn’t be trusted to handle another environmental hazard at Belmont.

But William Panos, the director of the district’s Environmental Health and Safety branch, disagrees. He said he was confident in the district’s ability to address the hazards.

“I can’t speak for what has happened in the past, but I can assure you that we will fix what we find wrong immediately, as soon as we can,” Panos said. “If the board approves Belmont, we can handle it.”

The district has conducted spot tests at all 11 sites and found no immediate health hazards. State environmental officials say those preliminary results are inconclusive. however.

The Daily News examined state and district records and found that 11 campuses with safeguards against known hazards are facing a myriad problems, including:

• Methane gas from a nearby landfill has filled buildings at Francis Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley to explosive levels on several occasions, and a crucial computer monitoring system was inoperable for a year.

• A system installed to clean toxins from the soil at Jefferson New Middle School in south Los Angeles was so poorly placed that it spewed potentially dangerous residue over students sitting at outdoor lunch tables and into the intake ducts of the heating and air-conditioning system.

• Upkeep of the methane monitoring system at Towne Avenue Elementary School in Carson wasn’t done for years, even though Los Angeles County was paying the school district to do it. The district installed classroom sensors improperly, potentially exposing teachers and students to explosive gases.

• At Park Avenue Elementary School in Cudahy, the campus was listed by the state in 1987 as a Superfund site because a dark goo coming from the ground was loaded with lead and two carcinogens, pyrene and benzo pyrene.

“The LAUSD’s past record shows that they can’t maintain these things. It scares me to death,” said John Robertson, a former Cudahy city councilman and petroleum engineer.

Belmont stakes

Ten days before the Daily News report, an independent panel recommended that the mammoth Belmont Learning Complex be completed, despite the fact that it rests on a heavily polluted site.

The special commission voted 4-3 to advise the school board to continue the 35-acre project envisioned as a showpiece for the 697,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, serving 5,000 high school students around downtown.

The panel did not vote specifically on what should be done to deal with potentially explosive methane and deadly hydrogen sulfide gases in the ground, but did discuss systems that use plastic membranes to collect rising gases.

A report said such “mitigation” systems would boost the center’s total cost to nearly $250 million.

The district’s seven-member Board of Education has final say on whether to finish construction. If it agrees, Belmont’s opening, originally scheduled for this year, would still be at least four years away, commissioners said.

The board will have to make the decision in the midst of a battle with Superintendent Ruben Zacarias, who has been isolated from direct administration after a Belmont audit that leveled sharp criticism at top district officials and former boards for choosing to build at the site in the first place.

Commissioners favoring completion said starting over at a new site—if one could be found—would cost far more, push back the opening of a new school many years and force thousands more students to be bused from the area to other campuses.

Commissioner Cruz Reynoso, a former state Supreme Court justice, said the recommendation would be more powerful if the vote had not been split.

The commission said it will suggest in writing that the board ask the state attorney general whether proceeding would violate state law against building on toxic sites. It also will suggest requirements to ensure that the toxic mitigation system is fully funded in advance to provide decades of operation and oversight by outside professionals.

But the narrowness of the group’s decision reflects a lack of trust that the district will be able to keep the school safe over the long run.

The district has already spent $144 million on Belmont. The ambitious plan includes post-high school career development academies within the complex, retail stores, a police substation, and sports facilities for the community.

A commission report concluded that finishing Belmont with the addition of technology to mitigate the gas problem would boost the cost to about $249 million. Going to a replacement site would send the total cost skyrocketing to $339 million, including the money already spent.

During earlier commission hearings, experts were questioned on the possibility of students being killed or injured, the cost and reliability of technology to handle the gases over the life of the school, as well as the potential liability from lawsuits.

The critical concerns were the naturally occurring methane and hydrogen sulfide gases in the ground of the oil field, which was developed in the 1890s.

Colorless, odorless and lighter than air, methane can explode if it collects in an enclosed space. Distinguished by its rotten-egg smell, heavier-than-air hydrogen sulfide can kill in certain concentrations.

Commissioner David S. Beckman asserted that under state and federal standards, there was no question that the site poses a hazard. “If you’re a parent deciding whether to send your child to a school, it matters what the risk level is even without mitigation, because systems fail,” he said.

Reynoso said the major issue was whether the site can be made safe for the projected 50-year life of the school.

Co-chairman Maribel Marin said the guiding principle for schools should be “that we avoid risks”—minor or major.

Commissioner Ira H. Monosson said any lawsuits over toxics would be found meritless, based on his review of data from the commission’s science committee: “This site is not as dangerous as some people have been trying to characterize,” he said. “… I believe that this can be controlled and made quite safe.” n


Los Angeles Unified School District, 450 North Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012; (213) 625-6000, http://www.lausd.k12.ca.us/.

Daily News Belmont Learning Center coverage, http://www.dailynews.com/extra/spec/belmont/belmont.asp.

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at submissions@eschoolmedia.com.