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District Delays Reopening of School Closed by Sticky Ooze


CUDAHY — Despite receiving assurances that it is safe for children to return, school officials said they will not rush the reopening of an elementary school that was shut down last summer after a sticky black ooze percolated to the surface of the asphalt playground.

A monthlong environmental study at Park Avenue Elementary School found that students will not face any health threats unless they have repeated, prolonged contact with the sludge, an environmental engineer said last week. The study found no traces of hazardous vapor in the air--one of the main concerns of parents.

The black ooze, which has surfaced on the playground every summer for years, consists of petroleum chemical compounds that are seeping from an old city dump on which the school was built in the late 1960s, said Angelo Bellomo, director of McLaren, the environmental engineering firm hired to conduct the tests.

Bellomo recommended that the air at the school continue to be monitored, but said students could return to school immediately.

Administrators probably will not reopen the school, however, until the sludge has been removed or contained, said Don Coleman, a Los Angeles Unified School District spokesman.

"It would be unsatisfactory for the community, the school and for us," Coleman said. "We don't want to take the drastic step to move back in there. We want to make sure everyone agrees first. We don't want to do something that would upset the community and delay the opening further."

Coleman said officials from the school district and the state Department of Health will meet next week to discuss how to clean up the petroleum-contaminated soil. A cleanup plan would have to be approved by the school board.

He said the year-round school probably would not reopen at least until the summer session begins in July.

The delay suits Delia Ramirez fine.

Ramirez's three children attended Park Avenue during the summer session when the blacktop playground softened under the sun's heat and the tarry sludge oozed through cracks, forming dime-size puddles.

Last summer, Ramirez became one of many who expressed concern that the substance was toxic and dangerous to the children. District officials fenced off the playground areas where the petroleum sludge surfaced, then decided to close the school until the material could be analyzed.

Ramirez said she would prefer that the contaminated sites be cleaned before the children are moved back to Park Avenue from Teresa Hughes and Elizabeth Street elementary schools.

"You know how kids are, you tell them not to touch something and they do, because you told them not to," she said. "Maybe it's safe now. Maybe it's not. I'd rather have them finish the work before the kids go back to school."

The report listed a number of cleanup options, ranging from excavating the contaminated areas to containing the substance by covering the playground with plastic and gravel, and a new asphalt surface. Containment would be the least expensive--$723,000, Bellomo said. Excavation would cost more than $5 million, he said.

Both options would take about two months.

A third option--adding nutrients and bacteria to break down the chemicals in the contaminated soil--would cost more than $1 million, but would take 10 to 20 months.

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