By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
As the environmental issues attending the new campus continued to deepen, state officials began to wonder how a new school had been raised on such a questionable site. The answer lay in a tortuous, sometimes expedient process that unfolded over more than a decade, and might best be characterized as "don't ask, don't tell." It began with the initial site surveys conducted by the district, which recognized in October 1988, "There is a potential for hazardous liquids to have impacted the subsurface of the site," and stated, "A thorough environmental site assessment of potential toxic hazards shall be prepared." No such assessment was conducted.
Two years later, in 1990, as the actual purchase of the property loomed, state regulators advised the district to install a vapor-recovery system that would remove volatile organic fumes - the process was expected to run a year. Again, that advice was ignored - this time, according to the August report by Wildman's Joint Legislative Audit Committee, because state money had been made available for property acquisition, and district officials were loath to jeopardize the funding. The report states, "It further appears that either the LAUSD withheld information from the state, or state officials cooperated with the district to circumvent the intent of existing law."
The district's acquisition of the Jefferson site was engineered by Bob Niccum, head of the school system's real estate branch then and now. At the state level, the site's environmental review was approved by Betty Hanson, a staff member who reviewed potential school sites for the Department of Education. Hanson also approved the district's plans for the vastly expensive Belmont Learning Complex, which also has unresolved site-pollution issues. Soon after, in 1994, she quit state employ and began working as a consultant to the L.A. district.
Even after the contamination at Jefferson came to light, L.A. school officials acted more to limit short-term costs than to clean up the mess. In September 1997, after the state-monitored assessment was complete, the district petitioned that the Regional Water Quality Control Board replace the state as lead oversight agency. Notes from district meetings tout the water board as lead agency because "oversight costs are minimal." Moreover, the water board has no toxicologists and scant expertise in soil and air contamination.
The state approved the switch, but Chiang urged the district to issue a warning under Proposition 65, which mandates disclosures from entities that expose the public to toxic chemicals. The district's first response was to pay a consulting attorney, James Wakefield, to draft an opinion arguing the district was exempt from Proposition 65, and had no duty to warn the public of these health risks. That opinion was ignored days later, when a Proposition 65 notification was made by Dave Koch, the district's then--business manager and official liaison to Cal/EPA. However, in two separate memos to board members, Koch said that exposure to the carcinogens was impossible; that cleanup and notification were environmental-compliance formalities.
Relations between the conflictive bureaucracies boiled over on September 8, 1997, during a meeting about Jefferson contamination issues. With nearly a dozen staffers from the water-quality control board, the district, and the state toxics agency (which hosted the meeting in its Glendale office) present, Barry Groveman, an attorney hired by LAUSD, launched into a tirade against Chiang, accusing him of leaking confidential information to the press about Jefferson's environmental concerns. Chiang denied the charge.
Greg Holmes, then Chiang's supervisor, was there. "Groveman did raise his voice in an intimidating way," he recalled. "I told him that was not appropriate." The bureaucracies responded by retreating. Hamid Saebfar, head of the local state toxics office, directed Chiang to stop all comment on the matter, and sent a chill through a department ostensibly charged with verifying lab reports, not ducking liability. Hamid Arabzadeh, then the head of the LAUSD's environmental division, called Chiang to apologize for the altercation. But Arabzadeh himself was later pilloried for his aggressive enforcement of toxics policies; a year later, he was fired.
One source of tension at the school district involved the growing certainty that the owner of the Superfund site adjacent to the school planned to sue L.A. Unified, among others, for the pollution on her land. LAUSD staff felt this was a pure grab for money, and with its state-sponsored assets, the district made an easy target. It also could be a just one. Tests suggest that contamination flows from the school property toward the Hard Chrome site, not the other way around.
But was hexchrome produced on the Jefferson site? According to some recollections, at least three businesses, Weber Showcase, which made chrome refrigerator cases, Ayers Chambers, and Gillespie Furniture, all did chrome plating. These businesses and Hard Chrome dated from the era when toxic wastes were routinely dumped into the back yard; one neighbor even recalled that practice at Hard Chrome. And years ago, Gillespie turned up on an EPA list as a hazardous-waste site.
Indeed, Hard Chrome's owner recently sued the school district over cleanup costs. Prior to that, however, Murray simply filed a claim against the district. Most such claims go directly to an insurance adjuster, but Hard Chrome got special treatment, documents show. In a memo to Rich Mason, general counsel to the district, Hamid Arabzadeh requested guidance on the handling of Murray's claim. "As you know, this is not an ordinary case," Arabzadeh observed. Mason's reaction was pointed: This was a matter for attorneys, not an insurance adjustor. He forbade any meeting with an adjustor over the matter. "NO INVOLVEMENT AT THIS TIME!" Mason scrawled across the memo in oversize block letters.