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School Staffers Cite Ailments, Seek to Leave Polluted Area : Environment: Workers at the former Tweedy School are next-door to a firm that is a candidate for toxic cleanup.

March 01, 1992|RICK HOLGUIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SOUTH GATE — Fifteen Los Angeles Unified School District employees say they have developed rashes, headaches and allergies while working at a former elementary school that was closed to students in 1988 because of concerns over air pollution and other contamination.

Several of the 20 employees at the former Tweedy Elementary School site in South Gate say they have asked the district to move them away from the industrial area.

The former school is next-door to the Cooper Drum Co. site, a candidate for the national Superfund List that targets the nation's most polluted areas for cleanup. The company recycles 55-gallon steel drums for industrial use.

"We feel like the birds they used to send down into the coal mines to see if they live," said Lee Saltz, a training teacher who has been based at Tweedy since September, 1989. "It's an unsafe place to be."

Saltz said she has had a rash on her right leg intermittently for more than a year, and she treats it with a medicated cream. The rash clears up during vacations, she said. Saltz and some of the other employees said they have been examined by their doctors, but the physicians could not pinpoint the causes.

Dolores Perez, a secretary who has worked at the site for more than two years, said a rash has developed behind her ears in the last year. "We were assured that (the site) was a safe place to work," she said. "I started feeling that they just put us in here and didn't really care about us."

Two workers said they sometimes have become nauseous on the school grounds.

Some school district employees say they also notice odors similar to the smell of solvents or burning wood at their work site. The employees said they called the South Coast Air Quality Management District in January to complain about the odors.

The AQMD sent out inspectors three times--Jan. 21, Feb. 6 and Feb. 11--but could detect no odors, AQMD spokeswoman Paula Levy said. The AQMD has not monitored the overall air quality at Tweedy since 1987, but it would consider any requests to do so, Levy said.

Employees also described their health problems in a Feb. 11 memo to district officials.

An Environmental Protection Agency inspector was sent to Cooper Drum and the former Tweedy school site Thursday, but he said he could find no obvious sources of pollution.

"If there's a problem, it may be from air emissions," said EPA inspector Robert E. Bornstein. "It might not be from Cooper Drum. This is a heavily industrialized area, and it could be coming from another source."

Bornstein said he would contact the AQMD to determine whether the air at the school should be monitored for contaminants.

Lisa Gold, a lawyer representing Cooper Drum, said the firm, which is regulated by the county in addition to the AQMD, does not present a health risk to the school district employees. "They (Cooper) are operating in compliance with all their permits," Gold said.

When the school was open, Cooper Drum waited until 3 p.m.--about the end of the school day--to start its drum recycling operation. The company has continued that schedule, which reduces the employees' exposure to emissions. The workday for the school district employees usually ends at 4:30 p.m.

The AQMD monitored air at the school in 1987 but found no dangerous pollution levels, an AQMD spokesman said. The next year, however, the school district closed Tweedy after employees and students complained of headaches, stomachaches, nausea, sore throats, swollen eyes, respiratory problems and other allergies.

In September, 1989, the district reopened the site and assigned about 20 employees, including training teachers and secretaries, to work there. The site also is used occasionally by district psychologists and nurses to test students.

Susie Wong, the school district's director of environmental health and safety, said the site was never declared unsafe. As a result of employee complaints, school officials will investigate "to see if there truly is a problem out there," she said.

In 1987, a county Emergency Response Team was called to Tweedy Elementary after oil and sodium hydroxide, a caustic cleaning agent used by Cooper Drum, began oozing from the soil at the school. High levels of a solvent also were found.

Leaks were discovered in a building where Cooper Drum washes used barrels. The county cited Cooper Drum for the contamination and ordered the firm to remove the contaminated soil at the edge of the asphalt playground. Cooper Drum removed the tainted soil and spent about $200,000 to re-pipe its drum-washing machine and fix cracks in the building that houses it, attorney Gold said.

But the employees at Tweedy school said they still fear exposure to fumes from hazardous liquids used at Cooper. A brick wall of the Cooper Drum building, on the school's northern boundary, is wet on some days, they said.

Gold said there were no liquids leaking from the drum recycling plant. But the EPA's Bornstein said his agency would test the wall to see if there were any recent leaks.

The EPA also will conduct extensive tests of the soil and ground water in and around Cooper Drum if the site is added to the Superfund List.

During limited tests, environmental officials discovered tainted soil at depths of 30 feet and polluted water 53 feet below the ground at Cooper Drum. The soil and ground water contained the industrial degreasing solvent perchloroethylene, or PCE, and other chemicals, including cancer-causing vinyl chloride and benzene.

Environmental officials say they are most concerned because the pollution has the potential to reach a major aquifer 600 feet below ground. The aquifer is the source of drinking water for South Gate and other cities in the Southeast Los Angeles County area.

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