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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Toxic Schools

Air Date: Week of

Los Angeles spent 200 million dollars building a badly needed inner city high school, only to abandon the project because the school site is located on a former oil field. As Celeste Wesson reports, it’s increasingly difficult for urban school districts to find clean land for new schools.


CURWOOD: In January, the Los Angeles school board reluctantly put a halt to construction at the Belmont Learning Center. The state of the art high school was slated to serve more than 5,000 students near downtown L.A. But none of the planners were aware that the school was being built on top of an old oil field. The site emits potentially explosive methane and hydrogen sulfide gases. It would have cost up to $60 million to fix the problem. Celeste Wesson reports that the Belmont scandal has put the issue of toxic schools on the map.

WESSON: The scandal is a tangle of shady land deals, lawsuits, and investigations. But the upshot is that the district did not conduct adequate environmental tests when the land was bought, and again when construction began. School board member David Tokovsky says the underlying factor was the enormous pressure to get the school built, and make it big enough to serve as many kids as possible.

TOKOVSKY: How do you find land that large in a densely-populated urban section? Well, it's not going to be pristine open land. It's not going to be strawberry fields that you can buy up. It's going to be places that have been used once, twice, or three times in the century.

WESSON: The board is already scouting alternate sites. One option is building more but smaller schools that don't require huge parcels of land. An accidental benefit of small schools, says Mr. Tokovsky, would be a less alienating, more nurturing environment for students. Any new sites will also be selected using stricter environmental standards. State Assembly member Scott Wildman sponsored a new law that was directly inspired by his investigation of the Belmont scandal. Instead of letting local school boards control the environmental review of new sites, it's now up to the state's Department of Toxic Substances Control.

WILDMAN: Every time a district now acquires a site, they are required to bring this department in to determine whether it's feasible to build a school on that site. And then, if it's determined that they can build a school on the site, they have to supervise the remediation of the site. Because we're not talking about mitigation. We're talking about making these sites safe.

WESSON: The district itself hired an interim director of environmental health and safety. He's making several proposals dealing not only with new school sites, but also with problems at existing schools, including those near landfills and others undergoing asbestos removal. Some community activists say there will need to be even more changes to deal with the full scope of the toxic schools problem.

(Weeping, sobbing)

WESSON: At a park in Bell Gardens, an industrial area about ten miles from Belmont, Communities for a Better Environment is staging a political skit. The first scene is a funeral. The mother is mourning the death of her child. In the second scene, she testifies at a government hearing.

WOMAN: (Shouting) How many more children have to die? How many?

MAN: Ma'am. Ma'am. There's nothing to worry about. Our studies show that there's no sign of a health hazard. You have my word.

MAN 2: I second that motion. No eye evidencia --

WESSON: Twenty local children have died of cancer in the past ten years. Deaths the group attributes to emissions from chrome plating plants that operated for decades next door to two local schools. Carlos Porras , speaking over the beat of an Aztec drum and dance troupe, says Bell Gardens is just one of ten neighborhoods with toxic schools where Communities for a Better Environment is seeking tougher air standards. New schools like Belmont are the tip of the iceberg, says Porras. The bigger problem is pollution at existing schools.


PORRAS: The challenge economically to make some very hard choices. Do the schools close? Do the industries close? Do we force regulation on existing industries? Many industries threatening to move if regulation is made tighter. That requires a strong political will with very strong and forceful leaders, and we don't have that.

(Drumming and rattling)

WESSON: Porras says it's a national problem anywhere schools have been built in poor urban communities near industrial areas. Lois Gibbs experienced the problem first-hand when her family was evacuated from their home in the contaminated neighborhood of Love Canal, New York. More than 20 years later, she says, it's still not known how many schools are environmentally unsafe. Although her group, the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, recently launched an informal survey in conjunction with PTAs and other groups. And, she says, the Center is already working with affected schools in states from Louisiana to Connecticut to Ohio. Gibbs hopes that these local battles will lead to new federal standards for safe exposure to toxins for children. And she says these standards will need to apply not only to schools, but also to day care centers, parks, and playgrounds.

GIBBS: I have a nine-year-old, and he's a catcher in baseball. And when they take home base and brush the dust off it, and all that goes into my son's face, I wonder what is on that dust. You look at baseball fields. They look like golf courses, they're so manicured. And that's about weed killers, fungicides, all of these other chemicals that children are being exposed to. So it goes well beyond the school itself.

WESSON: In California, state legislators will have a chance to enact stricter controls in the upcoming session. Bills that deal with environmental safety at existing schools, and to begin to assess the specific risk to children of toxic exposure, are in the works. I'm Celeste Wesson in Los Angeles.



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