Tainted Al Gore school seen as 'poster child' for national debate

For conservatives given to eye-rolling at the mere mention of Al Gore, the news seemed like a gift from the comedy gods: green groups warning of polluted soil beneath a Los Angeles school set to be named after the former vice president and climate change activist.

"The toxic fumes" emanating from the elementary school, Fox News pundit Bill O'Reilly joked on Wednesday, might "create an army of zombies which will destroy Los Angeles." Dennis Miller, a favorite guest of O'Reilly's, shot back that he "was catching toxic fumes off Gore" while viewing the Nobel Peace Prize winner's documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth."

But the contamination concerns are far from punch-line fodder for the public health advocates decrying the risk of harmful vapor intrusion from beneath the $75 million school and questioning local officials' promises that the site is safe for students. That media coverage of the school has focused on the irony of its namesake does not deter its critics -- rather, they welcome the national focus on the broader issue of environmentally unhealthy schools.

"To the extent that anyone is talking about the safety and rationale of siting schools" in areas with lingering contamination, "whether it's conservatives or liberals ... I applaud them," said Jane Williams, executive director of the nonprofit California Communities Against Toxics.

Williams described the Gore school as a "poster child" for the challenges facing U.S. EPA as it works to craft long-due guidelines aimed at helping local officials choose locations for new schools. First called for by Congress in the 2007 energy bill and now expected to emerge in draft form this fall, those guidelines ask EPA to consider children's heightened susceptibility to health problems from toxic exposures at potential school sites.


That mandate suggests to Williams and her allies that new schools should not be built on any site with pre-existing contamination, let alone the multiple environmental threats that lie near the future Gore school. The Carson-Gore Academy of Environmental Sciences -- to be named after the Nobel Peace Prize-winning ex-politician and Rachel Carson, the author of seminal anti-pesticide text "Silent Spring" -- was built near a onetime underground oil pipeline and a gas station with a previously leaking underground tank, according to environmental impact reports.

"It's OK if schools purchase land on unclean sites as long as they commit to cleaning them up," said California Safe Schools executive director Robina Suwol, another skeptic of the Carson-Gore Academy's safety. "That's a very pure intention. But who's going to monitor it, the school principal?"

When the EPA guidelines are released, Suwol added, building on "the cleanest site" should be recommended.

While commentators and advocates debate the meaning behind the school's name, which Williams called an attempt to "greenwash" its location, officials at the Los Angeles Unified School District take a different view. They plan to monitor air and groundwater using standards set by the state toxic substances department, and they are confident that the Carson-Gore Academy is ready for 675 students to open their textbooks Tuesday.

"Our belief is, based on the science, that the site is safe," said Pat Schanen, a manager at the school district's Office of Environmental Health and Safety. The removal of thousands of square feet of soil from the school last week, he explained, was done in an "abundance of caution mode."

No new schools in the South Bronx?

The thorny decision facing EPA on school siting is more complicated than simply allowing or dissuading the construction of schools on already-contaminated land.

In highly developed urban neighborhoods, for instance, the volatile organic compounds and tetrachloroethylene that required extensive cleanup work at the Carson-Gore site may be impossible to avoid. For areas where "there's no such thing as clean soil," strong standards for remediating contamination are essential, said Lois Gibbs, who became nationally known for fighting toxic waste after discovering pollution near her son's school in Love Canal, N.Y.

"To say you can't build on top of contaminated soil would mean the South Bronx would never have a school," Gibbs added, referring to a low-income area of New York City where industrial pollution and elevated emissions have led to elevated rates of childhood asthma.

Now executive director of the anti-pollution group Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ), Gibbs is preparing to meet with EPA next week on its school siting plans. Among her top priorities will be urging the agency to come out against the placement of schools on Superfund sites, which some localities have considered in past years.

CHEJ also spearheaded a Wednesday letter to Michelle Obama, co-signed by 326 other advocacy groups, calling on the first lady to consider contaminated schools as part of her Let's Move! effort to combat childhood obesity. The groups asked that the May recommendations released by Mrs. Obama's task force "be amended to deal with the reality that toxic hazards exist on or near some school properties, and efforts should be taken to clean up such contamination."

EPA did not return a request for comment by publication time on the timing for and factors influencing its decision on the school siting guidelines.

If a March audit from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office is any guide to EPA's plans, however, the agency may hew closely to the school siting suggestions made earlier this year by its Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee. That GAO report took EPA to task for not taking advantage of the resources available through its children's health protection office, including the advisory committee, and drew a quick response from Senate Democrats (Greenwire, March 17).

The children's health advisory committee echoed some of Gibbs' concerns about the inevitability of building some new schools on previously contaminated land, urging EPA to "develop soil, air and groundwater remediation standards that rigorously protect children's health and are specific to the unique exposures and existing and proposed school sites."

For the local public health groups warily eyeing the Carson-Gore Academy, such guidance from Washington cannot come soon enough. "If there ever were a reason for creating a model," for the construction process, said Suwol of California Safe Schools, "it would be this site."

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