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Soil Cleanup Slows Many New Schools

Belmont debacle spawns new rules that delay projects and run up costs across the state. A long list of chemicals are found at campus sites.

November 11, 2003|Janet Wilson and Kristina Sauerwein | Times Staff Writers

Two years after the Belmont Learning Center controversy led California to require testing for contaminants at proposed school construction sites, hundreds of districts have found harmful substances in the soil, leading to costly struggles to balance health risks, liability and cleanup costs.

Some school officials in overcrowded districts said the regulations have added costly, unnecessary delays to construction even when they believed the risk was minimal.

"Everybody wonders if we're spending all this money for nothing," said Richard Krall, who oversees construction for Chino Valley Unified School District, where state officials required a $650,000 cleanup for schools being built atop potentially hazardous methane gas.

Some pubic health advocates, however, say the program is a good start but doesn't go far enough, because it ignores the state's more than 9,000 existing public schools and doesn't mandate complete removal of all hazardous substances.

Since January 2000, investigators have tested 1,236 sites in 366 school districts under state laws adopted after the Belmont controversy.

From arsenic to zinc, inspectors have found a long list of chemicals in the soil and air at 317 of those sites, leftovers from businesses including military contractors and dairy farms. So far, state officials have required cleanups at 77 properties. School districts chose not to proceed with construction at 119 others. At others, detailed probes showed the amounts of chemicals present were not large enough to mandate cleanup, state officials said.

"In most cases it's probably not a situation where it's an obvious health problem. But in most cases, it's also not obviously safe, so you're in that gray area between 'We know it's safe' and 'We know it's harmful,' " said Richard Nickel, an environmental health scientist with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which evaluates Superfund sites. "This isn't milk we're testing."

State officials say the array of pollutants found has not been surprising. California school districts often have little choice but to consider contaminated property when they go looking for sites for new construction. Knocking down houses to build schools is seldom acceptable, leaving districts to choose from industrial and commercial sites. In rural areas, land can be laden with agricultural residue, such as pesticides.

"You got to do what you got to do," Krall said. But because children are often more vulnerable than adults to the effects of pollutants, diligence is needed for school sites, said Ron Baker, spokesman for the state Department of Toxic Controls and Substances, which oversees the state's testing program.

"We're more concerned about kids because, obviously, they're closer to the ground. They're small. Also, kids like playing in dirt and sticking their hands in their mouths," Baker said. "Breathing, touching and eating -- we're always going to be looking at those three exposure pathways."

Under the new laws, local school districts are required to pay for testing potential sites for contamination. First, historic uses of the land are analyzed, using aerial photos and relevant documents. If that analysis indicates the site might be polluted, soil and air samples are taken.

If large amounts of toxic substances are found and a district still wants to build, state officials devise a mandatory cleanup plan.

In the Chino Valley Unified School District, Liberty Elementary and Woodcrest Junior High in Ontario are being built atop former dairy cattle yards where the soil is steeped in methane gas. Aerial historical photos of the site show decades' worth of cattle manure and liquid waste stored in two giant pits as well as buried cow carcasses. The decaying waste produces methane.

Methane becomes flammable at 53,000 parts per million when it migrates above ground to small, confined places. At the Ontario school site, the state-mandated probes found methane concentrations as high as 186,000 parts per million.

At first, state officials ordered the district to dig up and remove the vast stores of animal wastes. When school district officials balked, saying they simply didn't have the $3 million it would cost, the state agreed to venting systems and liners costing about $650,000 to trap and release the gas gradually in a safe manner.

Methane has attracted considerable attention in part because it was the main contaminant found at the Belmont site. Statewide, however, other chemicals have been more prevalent.

At the 300-plus sites where environmental consultants have found "chemicals of concern," two-thirds have contained DDT or its derivative DDE, powerful pesticides and probable carcinogens. DDT was banned in 1972 but has lingered in soil for decades.

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