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Orange County

Low Levels of Contamination Found at Proposed School Site

September 09, 2004|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

The site of a proposed school for troubled Orange County students is contaminated with low levels of banned insecticides that hark back to the county's agricultural roots, state health officials announced Wednesday.

Soil samples taken from the farmland on Harbor Boulevard in Fountain Valley revealed levels of toxins, including DDT, toxaphene and dieldrin, that in past decades were used widely by farmers before being banned.

In December 2002, the Orange County Department of Education tentatively agreed to buy the 6-acre fruit farm from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The transaction was proceeding through escrow while education officials conducted environmental assessments that are required for any proposed school site.

The tests found toxin levels that posed "unacceptable, long-term risks," but a human would have to consume the polluted soil to be exposed, according to Jeanne Garcia of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. The contamination is restricted to the northern section of the land where a barn once stood, Garcia said, and drinking-water wells in the area have tested clean.

Health officials are most concerned with the elevated levels of dieldrin, which was used by farmers and homeowners before being banned in 1987. The chemicals detected at the site are suspected carcinogens.

Andrea De La Cerda, facilities administrator for the county Department of Education, said that she expects state health officials to approve the removal of contaminated soil to a landfill by the end of the year and that the toxins would not prevent construction of the school.

The cleanup cost is unknown, but De La Cerda said a recently passed state bond measure would cover the cost up to one-half of the value of the land. The land is appraised at $4.76 million.

But the fate of the school will rest on more than removing polluted soil. De La Cerda said community members have raised concerns about the effect the school would have on the area.

The proposed school would serve about 375 troubled high school students, most of whom have run afoul of the law or been removed from local school districts. It would be the first of several schools the county hopes to build for the thousands of such students it now educates at dozens of smaller, storefront locations, De La Cerda said.

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