By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Scene of the goo: Cudahy Mayor Perez presses down a small bubble.
How concerned would you be if your child‘s school was built atop a toxic landfill? And if you also knew that, at one point, a caustic sludge on the playground had forced the school to shut down for more than a year?
What if you then learned that a 10-year-old, temporary safety system at the school had never been upgraded, as ordered by officials?
Then, how would you feel if you discovered that circular pockets of vapor suddenly were rising up just beneath the school’s playground, right over the old dump site?
Well, if you‘re L.A. Unified School District lead hygienist Gary Pons, you wouldn’t worry a bit; you‘d consider Park Avenue School in Cudahy safe enough for your own child. He and other district administrators say they don’t know for certain what is causing the bubbling, but that it‘s not dangerous. State officials haven’t ruled out anything, but also insist there is no immediate cause for concern.
Many parents, however, see it differently. They are anxious for answers and distrustful of the school district, which has let them down on safety issues again and again. In 1989, Park Avenue School was ground zero for an LAUSD toxic nightmare, and now the bad memories have literally arisen from the tainted ground anew -- eerily echoing the events of a decade ago and raising profound questions about the school district‘s commitment to maintaining safe schools.
The irony of this history repeating itself is not lost on district environmental consultant Angelo Bellomo, who, in 1990, helped oversee the original temporary fix at the school. “The experience at Park Avenue is why there is a state law that prohibits the construction of schools on former hazardous-waste disposal sites,” he said. “A follow-up investigation should have commenced years ago. So now we have members of the public who were concerned 10 years ago and who are now asking the same questions about the school’s safety all over again.”
And this time around, it‘s not just the school district on the hot seat. Community activists also want to know why a state oversight agency, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), failed to enforce its own 1990 consent order that would have led to a permanent fix at Park Avenue. The agreement called for a full and timely study of the site, followed by a review of alternatives and a permanent solution. Had this agreement been honored by L.A. Unified -- or been enforced by the DTSC -- the parents’ fears could have been laid to rest years ago.
Instead, it took environmental scandals elsewhere in the district to trigger a rediscovery of Park Avenue by both district and state officials. Now parents are being told they must wait some more -- until April -- for the start of a formal investigation into the extent of the original contamination, as well as a status check on the work from 10 years ago.
“We need answers,” said parent Monica Sanchez, whose daughter graduated from Park Avenue. “We need a guarantee that they are going to make it safe.”
In 1968, long before there was an environmental furor over the Belmont Learning Complex, the school district opened Park Avenue School in a now-unthinkable location, atop a landfill that had been used for decades as an unregulated, petroleum-filled dump, one that sometimes caught fire when neighborhood children set it aflame for cheap entertainment. Bellomo recalls learning, some two decades after the fact, that a contractor working on the school‘s construction had encountered oily residues in the playground area. The contractor “mucked it up,” as he put it, the best he could, and went on with the job. Environmental enlightenment was then in short supply at the school district, which did nothing for some 20 years as tarry substances would regularly ooze through the school’s playground. School administrators publicly attributed the problem to bad asphalt, while ignoring parents who complained of the rashes and red eyes their children had developed.
By contacting the state Health Department, the city of Cudahy finally forced the district to take action. Testing of the gummy ooze revealed that it contained carcinogens, such as benzene, and high levels of lead, which can cause brain damage, as well as highly acidic aromatic hydrocarbons, which one consultant likened to battery acid. The situation was more immediately threatening than any potential harm currently associated with the unfinished Belmont complex. But in 1989, district officials at first confidently insisted that children faced no immediate risk, citing a consultant who opined that the tarry brew was dangerous only if eaten, or if rubbed on one‘s body, or if set afire and its vapors inhaled.
Cudahy resident George Perez was not placated, given that a generation of the city’s children had daily exposure for years on the playground. “The stuff was coming up, and the kids would play with it,” said Perez, who was a parent activist then and is Cudahy‘s mayor now. “My wife went to that school, and she knew kids who were chewing that stuff.” When the Environmental Protection Agency arrived to perform tests, its technicians wore white protective suits.