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The saga of a toxic school 

Wednesday, Oct 14 1998
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"I'd send my kid to Jefferson." Mary McDaniel, a personable physician, looks directly at you, concerned but confident. She's talking about Jefferson New Middle School, the first junior high the Los Angeles Unified School District has opened in 30 years, and currently its most controversial campus. For a year, concerns over toxic contamination kept the finished school empty. Echoing a chorus of district announce-ments, McDaniel insists it is safe.

McDaniel is not exactly unbiased. She operates a public-relations firm with her partner, toxicologist Chuck Lambert, and is under contract with LAUSD to address "community concerns" about Jefferson and other schools situated on toxic sites. McDaniel admits under questioning that she has no children she could send to Jefferson.

She would, however, send yours.

Jefferson Middle School, which opened in July and now serves about 2,000 mostly poor, mostly minority children, is tainted by more than clumsy PR. It sits upon a subterranean reservoir of hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen, whose origin is the subject of a current lawsuit. And carcinogens trichlorethylene, methylene chloride and chloroform remain in the soil and possibly in the air.

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Is Jefferson's safety based on science or on a spin campaign staged by a politically wired, $6 billion school district? That question has pitted a team of consultants, PR flacks and several of the city's more expensive attorneys against local activists and some elected officials who charge Jefferson's problems are rooted in socioeconomic bias.

The district seemed to hold the upper hand until late last month when, at a state hearing chaired by state Senator Tom Hayden, the tide turned. There, under the peeling acoustic tiles of a Jordan High School auditorium, a number of state environmental officials withdrew their previous (and much ballyhooed) certifications of Jefferson's safety. Hayden's inquiry was the second state hearing regarding Jefferson and LAUSD school-safety issues; last summer, Assemblyman Scott Wildman made headlines with the revelation that LAUSD has a policy of siting new schools on industrial, largely toxic properties. Hayden's hearing brought forth more revelations: that the district had been out of compliance with state law, had violated its air-quality operating permit (113 separate violations were ultimately cited), and that its Health Risk Assessment - the document proving its safety for occupancy - had to be thrown out.

The district came back last week with a hurried - and necessarily incomplete - study to contend that Jefferson was indeed a safe campus for children and staff. An independent consultant hired by the district, working with the state's Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), tested air and soil samples, and presented the reassuring results. "Jefferson is safe," announced board member Barbara Boudreaux, flanked by three of her fellow board members and the district's top brass. But doubters, notably Hayden, say that spin is still in force. "It is fair only to say that current tests are favorable," he said in a statement. "But more testing is necessary before Jefferson is deemed safe."

Indeed, a second phase of testing will begin soon, and at a deeper level. An ongoing criticism of last week's assurance is its literally shallow nature - soil was sampled only to a depth of 6 inches. Arguments over the conclusiveness of the "absolute final data," as Superintendent Zacarias called it, are likely to go on. So are the bills. Officials speculate that just the lab expenses of the phase-one tests might exceed $90,000. LAUSD has not provided information on Jefferson's cleanup costs thus far, but Ron Baker of the state Environmental Protection Agency projects total remediation costs as "in the millions."

The toxics at Jefferson finally came to light just before Christmas of 1995, as Ken Chiang was looking over L.A.'s newest Superfund site, formerly home to Hard Chrome Products. Chiang works as a hazardous-materials specialist with the Department of Toxic Substances Control, a division of Cal/EPA that oversees hazardous waste site cleanups. Hard Chrome, a small plating shop at Avalon Boulevard and 56th Street, had been torched in the 1992 citywide riots. As project manager, Chiang was looking for hexavalent chromium, or hexchrome, a carcinogenic byproduct of the plating process. Monitoring wells found hexchrome in abundance.

As Chiang was setting up the site, he noticed that across the street the furniture manufacturers and machine shops on an entire city block had given way to new buildings. When he learned the project was a school, he was alarmed. Despite best efforts, contamination can spread through the air when cleanups are under way, and while state toxics crews wear protective gear, school kids would not.

Chiang quickly contacted officials at L.A. Unified, only to find the district had done limited research on potential hazards at the school. The state department promptly took control of the environmental oversight process; Chiang ordered the same tests conducted at Hard Chrome, and the results came back even worse: The ground water at the Jefferson site proved to have the highest concentrations of hexchrome ever discovered in California. Nose to nose with a school.

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