Alarmed by reports of environmental "hot spots" on the site of a new high school just south of downtown, neighborhood activists demanded a meeting in the summer of 2003 with officials from the Los Angeles Unified School District.
They recalled promises by L.A. Unified officials that the school district would not repeat the mistakes of Belmont, a $180-million high school complex temporarily abandoned in the late 1990s because it had been built without protection over pockets of potentially explosive methane gas.
"We were assured that, especially after Belmont, the school would be clean," said Cecilia Nunez, a founder of the grass-roots group Neighbors for an Improved Community. "We didn't need to be concerned.... We accepted that as God's truth."
What school officials failed to say at the time, however, was that their handpicked developer had violated the district's environmental specifications by using hundreds of cubic yards of fill from a stockpile contaminated with carcinogenic PCBs and high levels of harmful petroleum byproducts, according to public and confidential records obtained by The Times.
In fact, the records show, school officials failed to tell state environmental regulators that the fill was already in the ground when the regulators ordered the school district not to use it. L.A. Unified officials kept mum for two years, despite a state law requiring school districts to notify regulators whenever contaminants are detected at a school construction site, records and interviews show.
School district officials are now scrambling to test the potential toxicity of the fill used under the administration building at the 19-acre site, a month before the campus is supposed to open as the city's first new comprehensive high school in three decades.
Community leaders, stung by the revelation that the school district withheld information about the tainted debris, say that no matter what the tests show, they want the district to remove the contaminated material, which also lies under the gymnasium.
"We were promised a clean school," Nunez said in an interview last week. "It can't be 'kind of contaminated' ... or 'partially contaminated.' It has to be clean."
Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry said L.A. Unified's handling of the debris problem has become a matter of institutional trust as school officials embark on a $14.4-billion initiative to build 160 schools and renovate hundreds more.
"It's actually very cruel to do that to a community. You lift people up, raise their expectations, only to find out there is some awful subterfuge going on. That's cruel," said Perry, whose district includes the campus, South Central L.A. New High School No. 1.
She promised to take further action against L.A. Unified, if necessary, to ensure removal of the contaminated debris from the site, known as Santee High.
Roger Carrick, an environmental lawyer who directed a highly critical Belmont probe as outside counsel for L.A. Unified's inspector general, said the district apparently did not learn Belmont's basic lesson: "When in doubt, err on the side of the strict interpretation of environmental regulations."
The contaminated fill was a byproduct of demolition at the school site, on Maple Avenue between Washington Boulevard and 23rd Street. It was once home to the Santee Dairy plant, as well as lead battery recycling, train maintenance and metallurgy operations over the years.
Tens of thousands of cubic yards of crushed concrete, asphalt, bricks and tile left over from demolished buildings were piled at the site. The school's developer, W.P. Carey & Co., had hoped the crushed fill could be used for grading the site, but most of it was hauled away and disposed elsewhere.
However, hundreds of cubic yards were used under the administration building and the gymnasium, as well as on the surface for a temporary construction road and temporary storm berms around the site's perimeter.
The harmful petroleum residues contaminating the fill, known as total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPHs), are byproducts of the crushed asphalt. The source of the PCBs, a banned substance previously used in electrical transformers, is harder to determine.
Although there were transformers on the site at one time, school officials say, the PCBs may also be byproducts of the crushed asphalt.
Contamination levels at the site won't be known until results are back from testing expected to go through the weekend, said state and district officials.
Documents show that earlier tests performed by the developer found PCB levels of up to 2.4 parts per million in a pile of construction debris.
The PCB level was below the state's threshold of 50 parts per million for a declaration of "hazardous waste," but eight times above what the state considers acceptable in residential areas -- and high enough to prohibit its use on a school site under state and school district rules.
L.A. Unified's environmental testing standards prohibit the use of fill dirt with any detectable levels of PCBs.