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The saga of a toxic school

"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.

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.

The school's prospects worsened in June of 1996, when excavations revealed two underground concrete storage tanks that had evaded metal detectors. According to district files, an environmental-science consultant would later call the district's failure to find the tanks "gross negligence." Their contents upped the environmental ante: trichlorethylene (TCE), a carcinogenic solvent whose poison can rise in fumes during its chemical breakdown, had leaked to 152 feet below ground surface.

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.

This special handling may have been, in no small part, due to the fact that the district had indemnified the primary seller of the Jefferson properties. As a result, the school district is potentially liable for the site's pollution problems. Jonathan Cookler, co-owner and representative of Avalon Investment Corp., which held title to nearly three-quarters of the parcels that made up the Jefferson property, signed a settlement agreement with the district dated February 22, 1991. The settlement holds Cookler and Avalon harmless from "all claims suffered after the date the School District commences the cleanup."

The effective agitators behind Jefferson's compliance were two women in the nonprofit group Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles (CCSCLA), headquartered on Central Avenue. Concerned Citizens began inquiring about the status of Jefferson two years ago when a local resident approached them with a state notice about hexchrome on his residential property. "As we started to look into this for him, we learned about the school construction," said Melodie Dove, who laughs at the observation that she's had a crash course in toxic substances and the politics that match them.

Dove characterizes the district as combative over the most basic interactions. She and Concerned Citizens director Juanita Tate had meetings with Dianne Doi and Sharon Thomas, both of the school district's Environmental Health and Safety Branch, to assess the environmental issues of the property, and any health risks students might face. "Sharon assured us they'd tested everywhere, that everything was fine," said Dove. "Within a couple of weeks, we discovered that almost everything she told us was false.

"Finally, they wrote us that all these state agencies had declared the school safe," she added. "They refused to answer specifics." Public documents of Jefferson meetings actually include the phrase "No copies to M. Dove." Relations deteriorated to the point where district officials accused Concerned Citizens of opposing the opening of a new school. "We answered that we desperately wanted a new school," said Dove. "We just wanted it to be safe."

Concerned Citizens agitated for further state testing, which identified unacceptable levels of methylene chloride and chloroform. These new "contaminants of concern," as environmentalists call them, raised new questions about the safety of Jefferson, including the unevaluated health risk posed by the interactions of chemicals that, individually, are present at acceptable levels. The soil-vapor-extraction system was installed at the time of the discovery of the new toxin, and the completed school was left empty for a year, and only opened in July.

At the hearing last month, Senator Hayden focused on the public agencies, from state funders to Cal/EPA oversight divisions, which allowed the Jefferson scandal to evolve. Brandishing reports that show the vapor-extraction system had gone off-line for days at a time and was failing to collect toxic vapors other than of one specific type, he demanded, "Was this caused by stupidity or malevolence?" School and state officials had a hard time answering.

In what may have been the most dramatic moment of the hearing - and for the future of Jefferson - Hayden asked three state experts, each of whose names had been used by LAUSD to proclaim the safety of the school, if they would testify that day that Jefferson was indeed safe. As he asked each, their identical answers dropped with a thud. "No." "No." "No." That trio of retractions was enough to send other public agencies into a frenzy of ass-covering. After a week, the AQMD served L.A. Unified with a notice of permit violation, and the regional water board issued a Cleanup and Abatement Order to the district to remediate the persistent contaminants to acceptable levels.

But the district's worst problem, at least in terms of credibility damage, was self-inflicted. To insulate Jefferson's future students against any residual contamination on the ground, school officials say they excavated up to 20 feet of the surface dirt and replaced it with clean fill. District documents indeed vouch for "clean imported fill" having been spread over the lot. But vague stories that some or all of the dirt had come from Caltrans excavations, and that it had a worrisome lead content, began to circulate. The school-district office that told Cal/EPA that the dirt was clean fill has no relevant records, because an executive from another branch, Jefferson project manager Max Duran, held that authority. But Duran has no records either.

"Representatives of the school district misled us about the origin of the soil," said state EPA spokesman Ron Baker in an interview. "We don't consider clean soil to be soil that's associated with Caltrans." Caltrans "recycled" soil is excavated from road sites and frequently contains lead accumulated from automobile exhaust.

More questions remain about how much dirt, clean or otherwise, the district actually brought in. Critics of Jefferson are worried that added soil was spread on play fields only, that contaminated soil under the buildings was left in place. Staff at the Environmental Health and Safety Branch don't know. They have no records of where the dirt was excavated - or where it came from. And an abbreviated interview with Duran, LAUSD's project manager for Jefferson, contradicted the district's published statements about the dirt. According to Duran, no soil was ever removed because of contamination; in fact, he said, he brought soil in simply to fill a void left by the removal of buried rubble. "After they removed various installations and re-compacted, they found there was a void. In order to fill the void, they imported soil," he said. So this was to supplement and not to replace? "Exactly."

But LAUSD documents clearly indicate that 12 to 20 feet of original topsoil from the site were removed and replaced with "clean fill." One such statement, by attorney Jim Wakefield, proclaims that to be exposed to any residual contamination, one would have "to dig a hole 20 feet deep and stand in it." According to Duran, who was more responsible for grading and construction than any other LAUSD official, the residual contamination on the surface soil was not removed at all, certainly not to a depth of 20 feet. And the district is silent on the question of whether any dirt was excavated from beneath the footprint of the buildings. However, a district document from March 1995 poses the question "Can all remaining [remediation] work be done outside of building footprint? If not, may interfere with construction schedule." If, as critics suspect, the district did place the school on dirt contaminated with decades of industrial spillage, health and liability concerns may escalate. That scenario, if proven, would mean that the district compromised mandated health-and-safety agreements for the expedient construction of a school which eventually stood empty for a year.

Why the school remains open during this period of uncertainty strikes critics as the ultimate act of environmental racism. Legislators Hayden and Wildman as well as Jorge Mancillas, a neurobiologist called to testify at the hearings, each said they would not send their children to Jefferson in its current state. "Do you think this would be allowed on the Westside of Los Angeles?" Hayden said in a statement. "I don't." Mancillas, who witnessed a district press conference proclaiming Jefferson's safety, shook his head afterward. "I wasn't sure whether they were being irresponsible or incompetent. After today, I think they do understand what's at stake and they're trying to evade it."

At the same time they declared Jefferson safe, district officials announced a sweeping plan to expand the independence of the Environmental Health and Safety Branch, and to draft an agreement designating its onetime nemsis, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, as lead agency for all future oversight.

Upon hearing the news, Hamid Arabzadeh alternately gasped and laughed. The former head of the L.A. school district's Environmental Health and Safety Branch, fired shortly after testifying before Wildman's committee that he would have done more thorough site assessments, is suing the district for wrongful termination, but feels he has already won a victory. "Everything I fought over for the health and safety of children in this district is being achieved," he said of the new plan. "These were all reforms I struggled over. They told me I'd be fired if I wanted to work the DTSC. Children of all classes can claim victory."

But the power and politics behind the district's past and future of environmental practices leave room for doubt. "The distrust is certainly understandable," commented school-district environmental consultant Angelo Bellomo. "In issues with chemicals, health and the public, it's easy for distrust to develop. But unless we have trust, it is very hard to forge a solution. When you lose trust, it is very hard to gain it back."


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