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Schools still rise close to freeways

As it modernizes, L.A. Unified is building near pollution-spewing roads despite a state law and health warnings.

September 24, 2007|Evelyn Larrubia | Times Staff Writer

Despite a state law that seeks to prevent schools from being built near freeways and mounting evidence that road pollutants harm children's lungs, the Los Angeles Unified School District is in the process of adding seven new schools to the more than 70 already located close to highways.

Last year, more than 60,000 L.A. Unified students attended school within 500 feet of a freeway, records show.

A 2003 state law prohibits school districts from building campuses within 500 feet of a freeway, unless the district can mitigate the pollution or determines that space limitations are so severe that there are no other options. In Los Angeles, officials say their choices have become more and more limited.

As the district undertakes a $20-billion school construction and modernization program, officials have considered a number of sites close to freeways. The district is now building five schools on lots that are within 500 feet of them.

In the coming months, the Board of Education will decide whether to begin construction of two more: Central Region Middle School No. 9 at Euclid Avenue and 7th Street, near Interstate 10, and Central Region High School No. 15, at 2100 Marengo Street, adjacent to the 10 near the interchange with the 5 Freeway. Those campuses are in addition to the nine L.A. Unified charter and regular district schools that have opened near freeways since 1997.

As the construction program continues, the Board of Education could be facing more such decisions.

School board President Monica Garcia, in whose district both pending schools are located, said through a spokesman that she was concerned about children's health, but that she would support the new campuses if the district was able to mitigate the dangers.

Carlos Estrada owns a small market and restaurant across from Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, where the district wants to build a high school. It could be a lucrative deal for Estrada, but he's not interested.

Estrada, who grew up in that East Los Angeles-area neighborhood, has nothing against new schools but said he has a big problem with the district building one on this particular site, roughly 90 feet from the 10 Freeway.

"I don't want to be one of those people who went ahead and sold the property because they want the money. My wife and I don't need the money," Estrada said. "I personally don't want a school that's going to harm the health of the children."

Scientists from both UCLA and USC have been studying the health effects of freeway contaminants in recent years and have found that they are significant. A report released in February said that children who live near freeways are more likely to suffer from decreased lung function than those who do not live near them.

One of the main culprits, researchers say, seems to be ultra-fine particles, noxious specks that are so light and tiny that they're hard to capture or filter.

"Ultra-fine particle numbers are highest on and around freeways and in experimental studies appear to have much higher levels of the damaging chemicals that are found to have health effects," said Andre Nel, chief of nanomedicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and co-director of the Southern California Particle Center.

A study by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment found increased asthma and bronchitis among San Francisco Bay Area children who attended schools near major thoroughfares.

The problem is not limited to Los Angeles. According to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, 2.3% of California public schools -- about 170 -- are located within 500 feet of high-traffic roads, those that carry more than 50,000 vehicles per day.

The vast majority of the L.A. Unified schools situated within 500 feet of a freeway were constructed before 1977. In some cases, the freeways were built after the schools.

In the two decades that followed, the district built 24 schools, but did not build that close to freeways again until it embarked on its current bond-funded construction program.

Of the schools opened near freeways in the last 10 years, the first was the Watts Learning Center, a high-performing charter. That school opened on the site of a former church near the 110 and is one of five charters built within 500 feet of a freeway in the last decade.

During that time, the district itself has opened four schools that close: Hesby Oaks in Encino; Olympic Primary Center in downtown Los Angeles; West Adams Preparatory High School, just west of downtown; and the Bellevue Primary Center in Silver Lake.

"I think local schools are really, really important, and I believe in public schools," said Marsha Rose, 50, a state vocational rehabilitation counselor who lives near Hesby, a K-8 school. "But I think it's so important for them to have activities that are active and healthy, and I think it's really hard when they build it that close to the freeway."

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