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Oozing Asphalt Jungle

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.

After additional testing, consultants headed by Bellomo recommended closing the school while emergency measures were put in place. From July 1989 to October 1990, the school was closed, bringing another hardship, the mandatory busing of Cudahy children to a South-Central school that some parents considered unsafe. Close to 300 parents, led by Perez, briefly boycotted school and forced the district to erect portable classrooms at other campuses closer to home.

The refurbished Park Avenue featured a playground with a new safety system. Engineers had installed gravel-filled trenches to collect liquid residue, while also hooking up a venting system to monitor vapor emissions. Above the trenches, workers laid down an impermeable plastic liner to keep the ooze below ground. Then came some 12 inches of clean sand, followed by a new asphalt top. A green, textured coating atop the asphalt finished the job.

For a temporary fix, it was an impressive $2 million effort. But most encouraging perhaps, was the consent order signed on August 2, 1990, by the school district and the toxics-control branch of Health Services, which later became the DTSC. The consent order stipulated that a permanent resolution to the contamination would be only months away.

Before the end of 1990, according to the agreement, the district would prepare a work plan for full testing, as well as a “community-relations plan” to keep the “public and the adjoining community” informed. A “remedial-action plan” would quickly follow to “set forth in detail appropriate steps to remedy air, soil, surface water and ground-water contamination at the site and adjacent areas affected by the site.”

In short order, within specific time frames, would come the work itself. Required quarterly progress reports would keep everything on track. Even allowing for plodding state reviews, parents could look forward to a project with a start date before the end of 1991.

But 10 years later, nothing had happened: no comprehensive testing, no community-relations plan, no remedial-action plan. Nothing.

“After 1992, the LAUSD postponed further investigations and final remedy selection due to budget constraints,” in the words of a DTSC fact sheet prepared for Cudahy residents. How could this have happened?

“We granted the extensions,” said DTSC spokesman Ron Baker. District officials “said they didn’t have enough money. And if they were telling us they don‘t have enough money, we accepted that. These were not indefinite extensions, but for two years at a time. There was some correspondence, but very little, and a lot of these extensions were given verbally.”

Baker added that the temporary fix resolved the immediate safety hazard, and has continued to do so, making policing of the consent order a lower priority.

In an interview, the district’s Pons asserted that the vents have been sampled at least once every year to ensure that no hazard exists, though he conceded that such testing has not been done quarterly, according to the terms of the consent order. All of this documentation has been sent to the state, said Pons. (A DTSC spokesman was unable to confirm whether his agency has received these records or not.)

It‘s difficult for residents to put faith in official assurances, given the broken promises of the consent order. In fact, the entire history of the site has a more sinister cast when reviewed closely. According to the LAUSD’s own documentation, officials knew all along that the site had been a dump and had a pretty good idea of what was in it. Two ground studies examined whether the garbage and fill at the site could support buildings. A third study, in 1968, characterized the source of ooze seeping through the new playground as hardened tar, waste asphalt, and gaseous and organic manner. These observations were never shared with the community; nor were repeated findings of methane, which resulted in the installation of a venting system to disperse the gas.

This week, school administrators were friendly and accommodating during a visit by a reporter, Mayor Perez and Cudahy City Clerk Larry Galvan, who pointed out several clusters of the circular vapor pockets -- from four to eight inches in diameter -- that are lifting the texture coat off the asphalt surface beneath. In some spots the textured surface, which is like the deck coating used for pool areas and balconies, is worn through entirely; elsewhere, it‘s obvious that the surface has been crudely patched with another layer of textured coating. One patch measured about 12 by 14 feet. District officials acknowledge that a maintenance worker has been cutting out the bubbles and installing patches himself for at least five years, without any supervision from the district’s Environmental Health and Safety Branch.

No problem, said district hygienist Pons, because the maintenance man has been fully trained in the proper application of texture coating. For now, however, the cutting and patching has been halted on orders of a DTSC administrator, pending further study. “I don‘t know why he said that,” said Pons. “They are in agreement with us that there is no imminent health hazard at that site.” Pons added that the district’s occasional monitoring has detected no warning signs, and that the textured coating itself is there just for “aesthetic” reasons. “I would let my kids play on that playground.”

For community members, Pons‘ reassurances are framed against the backdrop of a district bureaucracy that has fallen short on safety issues, and even misled parents -- and not just at Park Avenue or the later $200-million Belmont project, which the school board canceled last month.

An internal district report -- presented in September by Public Interest Investigations, Inc., a private firm -- alleges widespread problems in safety practices. Time and again, the Safety Branch underreported environmental hazards, as managers both inside and outside the branch edited staff reports that either were deemed “too scary” for the community, or were regarded as putting undue “pressure” on other district branches or officials. Investigators interviewed 37 current or former Safety Branch staffers, and more than half said they’d been pressed to underplay or cover up environmental problems. And although employees feared retaliation for speaking out, several felt so strongly about the matter that they attached their names to the allegations.

Included in the litany of disturbing incidents was one involving environmental-health specialist Pauline Garzon, who recounted what happened when she found elevated levels of asbestos in a physical-education office at Wilson High. Instead of shutting down the office for cleanup or ordering lab tests, her supervisor instead directed her to do a manual cleanup of the potent carcinogen with a vacuum and wet wipes. The room was not sealed off for a professional cleanup until she demonstrated persisting high levels of airborne asbestos.

Former industrial hygienist James Matte recalled being summoned to a middle school in 1994 over a formaldehyde spill in a storage area next to a classroom. When the respirator of a cleanup technician failed, Matte had to suspend work. He said that the branch director then told him the spill would be dealt with “in a different way.” Matte said he later learned that the dangerous chemical had simply been allowed to evaporate over a week‘s time, after which a technician came in to remove the residue.

Assistant Industrial Hygienist Nashat Habib told investigators that in 1994 he was ignored by department superiors when he suggested analyzing nearby oil wells as a source of indoor air-quality complaints at Westchester High. A supervisor told Habib that management “didn’t want to hear about it.” He said a similar episode occurred when he stumbled on a worrisome odor emanating from a high school print shop in 1990 or 1991. And recently, he said he discovered elevated lead levels in freshly painted rooms at several Valley elementary schools -- suggesting the possible use of illegal, lead-based paint. He recommended testing paint samples, but knows of no action that was taken in this regard.

In the report, top district safety administrators denied some of the allegations while also defending their overall work, specifically their monitoring of lead and asbestos, as setting a cutting-edge safety standard for school districts. But they also acknowledged that raising safety issues resulted in being viewed as obstructionist. Safety concerns were simply getting in the way of keeping schools open and finding new school sites, not to mention cluttering the agendas of maintenance supervisors. In 1997, one top maintenance official angrily insisted on the right to “review and approve” safety reports, according to several witnesses.

The Safety Branch tried to streamline its work by instituting a “customer service” approach, borrowing this language from critical management audits of the entire district bureaucracy. Except the Safety Branch didn‘t take students or parents to be the customers, but rather other district offices, such as the facilities division. “Even though we had the authority to say this was a law they had to follow, we chose not to take that approach,” former Safety Branch director Susie Wong told investigators. “We tried to say we were there to assist, not to make them comply,” with environmental regulations. She added that, at the same time, her staff knew better than to permit anything illegal.

It was neither the Safety Branch nor the DTSC that first engaged Park Avenue again, but the district’s specially assembled “safety team” anchored by Bellomo and outside legal counsel Barry Groveman, a longtime district environmental adviser who is running for district attorney. Groveman recalls that last summer, the safety team learned that a vapor-extraction system to remove toxins from the soil at Gratts Elementary was being monitored and maintained by custodial staff, not by the Safety Branch. And that this practice was routine across the district. Acting on a safety-team recommendation, the school board and superintendent immediately ordered Safety Branch staff to take charge of school-safety systems. The school board‘s directive was virtually ignored for months -- until top officials reiterated the demand, Groveman added. Meanwhile, the safety team headed by Groveman and Bellomo began to review the status of each of these sites, including Park Avenue.

The DTSC returned to Park Avenue only after being called in by the safety team last year. The role of the DTSC in school safety has expanded greatly over the past year. It is now the lead agency statewide for approving environmental-safety measures at new school sites.

Mayor Perez began to mobilize the community on the issue after learning of the DTSC consent order from reporter Terri Hardy of the Daily News, who included the lapsed agreement in a November article on contaminated school sites. But neither Hardy nor Perez knew about the vapor bubbles in the textured coating. The playground was shut down for two days last month while DTSC investigators slashed bubbles and tested the air for toxins on what City Clerk Galvan remembers as a windy day. Because the instruments registered no sign of an acute risk, the playground reopened, but Baker of the DTSC acknowledges that the tests were cursory and didn’t resolve matters such as the potential for harm from long-term, low-level exposures. A full DTSC-supervised investigation is expected to begin in April.

For Perez, who manages a building-materials store, the issue is intensely personal. As a young man, he hustled his first job at Cudahy Park, next to the school, where he became an assistant to the park janitor at the age of 15. Later, he did custodial work at the park, which also may suffer from dump contamination, while also beginning to manage recreation programs there. During the first scare, he eventually transferred his children from Park Avenue to a private school because of his persistent fears. Those children are now in high school, but he has a 3-year-old he‘d like to send to Park Avenue, which, despite its bland ’60s architecture, is a neighborhood focal point. To alert city residents about last week‘s community meeting regarding Park Avenue, Perez spent $350 to reproduce 700 fliers and mail out 250 notices.

At the meeting, it was standing-room only as more than 150 residents crowded into the recreation center adjacent to the school to hear state and district officials attempt, with mixed success, to calm them.

“We are not going away until this site is completely clean,” said the DTSC’s Martin Prisco, a “public participation specialist” with the DTSC.

Said Perez later, “I think the school district and the DTSC are at fault. I finally made up my mind after that meeting. I‘m going to be outspoken and do everything I can to see that the school gets fixed once and for all, and I have the full support of the community.”