Al Gore has had some tough breaks — like losing the presidency after getting more votes than the other guy — but the noted environmentalist achieved a singular honor last week, becoming the first vice president to have a Los Angeles school named after him.
And, fittingly, the school will be devoted to environmental themes.
But as in the 2000 election, there's a catch. Critics say the campus' location poses a long-term health risk to students and staff.
School district officials insist that the Arlington Heights property is clean and safe. And they've pledged to check vapor monitors and groundwater wells to make sure.
The $75.5-million Carson-Gore Academy of Environmental Sciences will open Sept. 13 for about 675 students. As he was with Bill Clinton (who has an L.A. middle school named after him), Gore is second on the ticket to Rachel Carson, the late author credited with helping launch the modern environmental movement.
"Renaming this terribly contaminated school after famous environmental advocates is an affront to the great work that these individuals have done to protect the public's health from harm," an environmental coalition wrote in a letter to the Los Angeles Unified School District. Making sure the school is safe "would be an even better way to honor their contribution to society."
Construction crews were working at the campus up to the Labor Day weekend, replacing toxic soil with clean fill. All told, workers removed dirt from two 3,800-square-foot plots to a depth of 45 feet, space enough to hold a four-story building. The soil had contained more than a dozen underground storage tanks serving light industrial businesses.
Additional contamination may have come from the underground tanks of an adjacent gas station. A barrier will stretch 45 feet down from ground level to limit future possible fuel leakage.
An oil well operates across the street, but officials said they've found no associated risks. Like many local campuses, this school also sits above an oil field, but no oil field-related methane has been detected.
Groundwater about 45 feet below the surface remains contaminated but also poses no risk, officials said.
Because the district imported clean dirt, the school is probably safe at the moment, said Jane Williams, executive director of the Kern County-based California Communities Against Toxics. But she and other critics, including Robina Suwol, who heads the locally based California Safe Schools coalition, worry that the pollution sources have not been adequately identified and that the dirty groundwater could recontaminate the soil.
Everything's under control after the $4-million cleanup, said John Sterritt, the school system's chief safety officer.
"There's no doubt in my mind that the site is safe, and if there are any changes, our monitoring or our existing processes will detect it and we'll react to that," Sterritt said. "We really go out of our way to make sure these properties are safe."
Officials contend the district has made huge strides since environmental concerns stalled the Belmont Learning Complex, which has since opened as the Roybal Learning Center. In addition, new schools now fall under the review of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.
In the spring, a school-naming committee received six options, including Pete Seeger Community School. A representative from school board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte suggested that the folk singer's "affiliation with the Communist Party," among other factors, made that choice inappropriate, two in attendance recalled.
Three meetings later, the consensus was Carson-Gore.
At last week's school board meeting, district officials said Gore had never been contacted regarding the naming or the contamination concerns. Board member Nury Martinez speculated that, under the circumstances, Gore might decline the honor.
But school Principal Kurt Lowry pointed out that no one obtained Barack Obama's permission before naming a middle school (also opening this fall) after the president. Lowry intends to invite Gore and members of Carson's family to the school's October ribbon-cutting.
Gore is on vacation and unreachable, said spokesman Mike Feldman. But his staff is not aware of another school named after the former vice president, who raised awareness about global warming in the film "An Inconvenient Truth."
Lowry said the school's environmental emphasis will do Gore proud, including recycling projects and research and beach cleanups. Cross-curriculum efforts will include environmental speeches and presentations in English, topsoil measurements in math and climate study in science.
The principal also envisions an organic garden that could produce a student-led farmer's market.
Suwol said Lowry sounds "incredibly wonderful," but added that she'd feel better if the vegetables were grown in planters above the ground.