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Schoolyard secrets

When it comes to kids' safety, why do we tolerate a public right not to know?

June 27, 2007|Joy Horowitz | JOY HOROWITZ, a former Times staff writer, is the author of the forthcoming "Parts Per Million: The Poisoning of Beverly Hills High School."

THE ARREST this month of a reporter, accused of trespassing for taking soil samples at a pesticide-contaminated Paramus, N.J., middle school, is a powerful reminder of our tolerance for official secrecy about environmental health risks at schools.

Michael Gartland, of the Bergen Record in Hackensack, first reported an environmental consultant's warning that soil at the school was contaminated at levels 39 times greater than the state's safety guidelines. The school district knew about the pesticides in January but never informed the public or tried to fix the problem until Gartland began asking questions. Officials closed the school and promised to clean it up. But when Gartland removed soil from the school's soccer field -- which it is claimed wasn't marked off-limits -- for independent testing, the authorities thanked him with handcuffs and seizure of the samples.

The story reflects a cynical paradigm about environmental safeguards in our schools -- namely the public's right not to know. The sad truth is that the suppression of environmental health information by government officials is a national scandal. In New Jersey, state law doesn't require that the public be notified of hazardous contamination at schools or how it will be handled. In California, state watchdogs only have the funding to investigate proposed schools, not existing ones.

And even after investigation, worries about declining property values and tax revenues tend to prevail. When federal Environmental Protection Agency investigators found dangerously high levels of asbestos at a school in the Sacramento suburb of El Dorado Hills, the head of the school district successfully lobbied elected officials to pressure the EPA not to declare the area a Superfund site. No cleanup was required, despite the well-documented medical link between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma, a deadly lung cancer. Clearly, limiting legal exposures has taken precedence over limiting toxic ones.

It's notoriously hard to prove that environmental exposures of various types cause specific diseases. But as scientists try to understand that puzzle, it makes sense that we all need to know -- should be able to find out -- what those exposures are.

Take, for example, my own alma mater -- Beverly Hills High School. Four years ago, I began to investigate the possible link between an elevated incidence of cancers among its graduates and the fact that the campus is the site of 19 oil wells, which have brought at least $50 million in royalties to the school district, the city and its residents for nearly 50 years.

A public records search documented that the campus oil wells and a power plant next door in Century City have emitted tons of hazardous chemicals for decades. Still, legal loopholes obfuscated the public's right to know exactly what was going on.

When I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with Beverly Hills, public records were conveniently labeled "privileged" by the city attorney in light of ongoing litigation -- more than 1,000 former students, teachers and residents are claiming that their cancers and other illnesses were caused by exposure to benzene, hexavalent chromium and PCBs at the school. (A Superior Court judge dismissed the first 12 of those cases, saying there was not enough evidence to establish medical causation; his decision is being appealed.)

Other records that should have been available to the public also were off-limits. The South Coast Air Quality Management District, citing proprietary concerns of corporations, redacted documents that would have revealed the chemical constituents in gas lines -- an important issue because testimony in court alleged that from the early 1980s to 2006, Southern California Gas Co. pipelines feeding the power plant next to Beverly High were contaminated with PCBs banned as cancer causing by Congress 30 years ago. State health officials also denied my request for public records about the use of radioactive materials at the oil wells. This time, a bureaucrat cited homeland security concerns in light of 9/11.

The federal Clean Air Act requires "major" sources of air pollution to notify the public about their operations. How did Sempra Energy, which ran the power plant adjacent to Beverly High until last year, meet the letter of the law? In 2004, it placed an ad in a Valley newspaper and in the Spanish-language La Opinion -- not exactly where most Beverly Hills residents would see them. The notice mentioned "steam" but said nothing of the release of carcinogens such as formaldehyde, chromium and benzene. An annual Sempra Proposition 65 "toxic chemicals" warning, in the Beverly Hills Courier, listed only oil, gasoline and natural gas that "may be in and around" the facility, without specifying chemical exposures.

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