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Another Toxic School? Virgil Expansion Planned on Contaminated Land

LAST WEEK, THE L.A. BOARD OF EDUCATION approved the first step toward building an $85 million elementary school for 800 children in East Hollywood, to be erected on the three-acre playing field of Virgil Middle School. Just off Vermont Avenue, it will open in 2012, accepting kids from five severely crowded, woefully underperforming schools.

Under the deal, the middle school will get a new, three-acre field on nearby land that’s now a hodgepodge — a gravel parking lot for teachers, a tow-truck operation and a food-processing plant.

So what’s not to love? Say critics: more than six decades of chemical-laden industrial operations — companies with names like Chemicals Limited — and the toxic contamination they left.

Since at least 1920, the land beneath Virgil Middle School’s cracked-asphalt athletic fields and its teachers’ parking lot were used for gas stations, machine and steel-cutting shops, extremely hazardous metal-plating, oil-drum and paint-tank storage — and more.

From 1998 to 2007, while overcrowded L.A. Unified School District was on a desperate search for school sites, district officials repeatedly considered, studied — and promptly shelved — ideas for cobbling together those properties for a new school. (In 1997 they approved the disastrous Belmont Learning Complex near downtown atop a toxic oil patch, which finally opens this fall under the name Vista Hermosa.)

Now, with the district admitting it must spend at least $10 million to clean up the Virgil parcels, LAUSD is in damage-control mode. Thomas Watson, of the district’s Environmental Health and Safety office, denied to theWeekly that land around Virgil was ever rejected because of its documented toxic history, then adds, “as far as I know.”

In sharp contrast to Watson’s recollections, a former senior administrator who worked for at least two superintendents in the 1990s tells the Weekly: “That’s absolute bullshit. We used to use [that site] as the one to ‘throw away.’”

By that, he means that in response to pressure from the state of California to propose land for new schools, the foot-dragging LAUSD padded its list with unrealistic properties. “We always put that one on [the list], because we knew it wouldn’t pass muster,” he says. “It was probably the most toxic site they ever looked at.”

Under the teacher’s parking lot, the district found ground water contaminated with gas, solvents and volatile organic and chlorinated hydrogen compounds, and removed more than 3,000 pounds of petro-hydrocarbons from the soil.

Today, Virgil Middle School principal Eva Snethen Stevens can’t believe the district is proposing this oft-rejected land for a school, not only because of past toxic problems but also because the plan abandons any pretense of pursuing “small schools,” and forces little kids to share a campus with teens — including gangs. Four Virgil students were shot and killed this school year.

“When this was first raised about Virgil, honestly, I laughed,” Stevens says. “I thought, ‘That is just insane.’... I’ve been with L.A. Unified for 30 years. I’ve seen a lot of things happen. This is the most preposterous thing I’ve ever heard of!”

Strangely, Virgil can thank a group of politically connected, self-proclaimed enviros for the school board’s controversial decision. Until this January, the district seemed intent on buying and tearing down two businesses, three houses and 32 old apartment units across West 1st Street from Virgil Middle School for its grade school. The West 1stStreet land is also contaminated but does not have nearly the history of chemical usage as the Virgil school land.

But that’s where Lois Arkin, the maven of the “Eco-Village” movement, lives. A loosely organized group of aging hippies, the small movement eschews cars and touts green living — and has long lived in some of the housing that was to be targeted by LAUSD bulldozers.

So Arkin raised hell, winning support from Board of Education President Monica Garcia and L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti. Arkin and other Eco-Villagers suggested the outlines of the new plan, shifting the school from the relatively clean land the Eco-Villagers live on to the land with the much more toxic history. The school board a few days ago voted for the path of least resistance.

Now, the apartments and three other homes will remain, while land next door occupied by an LAUSD building will become the new “state-of-the-art” parking lot for the teachers. The more controversial land will become a school.

If it really comes to pass, Virgil teacher Lissa Alfred will go from working on one field with a history of contamination to another, and she’s not happy about it.

A P.E. teacher since 1991, Alfred has spent more time on Virgil’s athletic field than almost anyone, and in 2003 she got breast cancer. It doesn’t run in her family, yet she can’t prove that working on the site of former chemical companies and gas stations caused it. Now, she says, “I do not want to have to work at a toxic wasteland for the rest of my career.”

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