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School to Open on Time After State Rules Out Toxic Threat

Contaminated backfill used in the South L.A. campus won't have to be excavated, officials say.

June 17, 2005|Ralph Frammolino | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Unified School District will not be required to excavate contaminated backfill used at the city's newest high school after preliminary test results determined that the relatively low levels of toxic substances pose no public health threat.

The tentative decision by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, disclosed by agency officials Wednesday in an interview, clears the way for the 2,000-student school to open as planned July 5 and averts a last-minute crisis for school district officials. They have been scrambling for weeks to convince regulators and community leaders that the $107-million campus was safe.

L.A. Unified officials say the school, built on the site of the former Santee Dairy processing plant just south of downtown, is needed to ease overcrowding at nearby Jefferson High, which has been roiled by student unrest in the last two months.

Hamid Saebfar, chief of the Department of Toxics Substances Control's school property evaluation and cleanup division, said his agency's approval to proceed is based on preliminary results from recent tests at the new campus, known as South Central L.A. New High School No. 1.

"I don't see anything in there that says 'Stop everything and start excavating.' I don't see anything that requires further action," Saebfar said this week. He added that the agency could change its determination if the final test results came back dramatically different, but he didn't expect that to happen.

The agency ordered the school district to conduct the emergency testing this month after a Times investigation found that district officials knew for two years that tainted demolition debris had been used as backfill under the new school's gymnasium and administration building but they had failed to tell state regulators, as required by state law.

The debris came from a large stockpile that was tainted with carcinogenic PCBs and high levels of harmful petroleum hydrocarbons. Of particular concern were the PCBs, fluids used in electrical transformers. The Department of Toxic Substances Control concluded that the material was "not acceptable" for a school site, records show.

Based on the most recent testing, however, the agency has tentatively determined that it does not have to order excavation of the backfill.

Fifty samples from 11 borings drilled inside and around the new administration building showed extremely low levels of PCBs and tolerable amounts of petroleum hydrocarbons, said William Bosan, a toxicologist for the regulatory agency.

The highest concentration of PCBs was 0.5 parts per million, he said, less than the 2.4 ppm that was found in the debris stockpile during earlier testing.

But the results yielded at least one surprise: a hot spot of hexavalent chromium, the chemical at issue in the 2000 movie "Erin Brockovich." Hexavalent chromium causes lung cancer when inhaled over a prolonged period.

The tests showed elevated levels of the chromium -- 44 and 25 ppm -- in two samples taken from under the sidewalk adjacent to the new high school's administration building.

That is nearly 90 times greater than the 0.5 ppm found during earlier testing and more than 440 times greater than the 0.1 ppm permitted in construction fill dirt by L.A. Unified's environmental specifications.

Saebfar and Bosan said the material poses no health threat because the hot spot is "isolated," isn't volatile enough to vaporize and rests about 20 feet below the surface.

News of the regulatory agency's decision was greeted Thursday with cautious optimism by Angelo Bellomo, the school district's top environmental official, whose office has been in charge of conducting the recent tests.

"What I'm rejoicing over is we've got enough data to ensure the safety of the school," said Bellomo.

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