Published September 12, 2010
LOS ANGELES – Students at a new green themed school named for noted conservationists Rachel Carson and Al Gore don't have to go far for a lesson in environmental contamination: Their $75 million campus was laden with toxic soil.
Los Angeles Unified district officials have spent $4 million to clean up the site of the new Carson-Gore Academy of Environmental Studies, which is set to open Monday.
The three-acre site, located in a low-income neighborhood west of downtown LA, was contaminated with carcinogenic solvents that leaked from 17 underground storage tanks discovered during construction. The land had been previously used by light industrial businesses.
The school district said the school has been cleared by state toxic control authorities and is ready to receive its 675 elementary students, whose curriculum will be sprinkled with environmental themes.
But a coalition of environmental groups argues the district is not going far enough to prevent possible soil vapor intrusion into classrooms from an outside source of contamination. The site is bordered by a gas station and an oil well.
Testing at the site indicated that contamination was coming from a source other than the storage tanks onsite, said Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, who has been monitoring the issue. That pollution could affect the groundwater, which could send vapors into the building.
"The site is not completely cleaned up," Williams said. "They should have surveyed the whole site, and they need to monitor the air in the school."
In a statement, the school district said the groundwater is being remediated and will be monitored according to state requirements. Toxic soil has been replaced with clean soil to a depth of 45 feet and a barrier has been installed along the property line with the gas station as part of the $4 million remediation plan.
The neighboring oil well has been assessed and does not pose a threat to the school. California has the strictest environmental regulations in the nation and the district is meeting them all, the statement said.
"There are NO significant health risks identified in the Environmental Impact Report," the statement said. "The Carson-Gore elementary school is safe and will open for students on September 13, 2010."
Despite that reassurance, parents are concerned, said community activist Deborah Bellholt, who has represented parents at meetings. "There's very little information that's given to parents," she said.
In an Aug. 31 e-mail to the school board and Superintendent Ramon Cortines, the coalition noted the irony of naming of a polluted school site for Carson and Gore.
"We feel that renaming this terribly contaminated school after two famous environmental advocates is an affront to the great work these individuals have done to protect the public's health from harm and greenwashing," wrote the California Safe Schools Coalition.
Gore's office declined to comment. The school is believed to be the first named for the former vice president, who was not notified about it, said Gore spokesman Matthew Feldman.
Gore has won numerous honors for his defense of the environment, including the Nobel Peace Prize and an Academy Award for a documentary based on his book "An Inconvenient Truth" in 2007.
The school's other namesake, Carson, who is credited with founding the environmental awareness movement, would have applauded the school, but would have been horrified at its pollution, said Linda Lear, a former environmental history professor considered the foremost expert on Carson's work.
Students will receive "a wonderful lesson of restoration," Lear said.
Carson, who died in 1964, was the author of "Silent Spring," which sparked public awareness of the effect of pesticides on the environment and human health. A number of schools in the Maryland and Virginia area, where Carson mostly lived, have been named for her, Lear said.
Environmentalists said they will continue to monitor the school's environmental health.
"My hope is that they meet the standards of the fine work Rachel Carson and Al Gore have done and gone beyond," said Robina Suwol, executive director of California Safe Schools Coalition.