School Effort to Obey Laws on Chemicals Goes Awry
Officials of the Los Angeles Unified School District figured that they had a simple plan to comply with two new state hazardous-waste laws.
The district would send a team out to collect all old and hazardous chemicals. The materials would then be brought to the Van Nuys Science Materials Center, where a hazardous-waste disposal company would pick up the chemicals and haul them away.
But before the chemicals could be taken away, someone called the Los Angeles Fire Department.
Department investigators said the 100 boxes and 30 barrels of chemicals in the storage area posed serious health and safety dangers. They ordered the immediate closing of the building and told the district to submit new plans for the proper disposal of the materials.
“Los Angeles wouldn’t have been dinged by the Fire Department if they didn’t have a plan,” said Arie Korporaal, science curriculum consultant for the Office of the Los Angeles County Supt. of Schools. “But state law says you have to have a plan.”
Ticklish New Laws
The Catch-22 situation that Los Angeles district officials found themselves in is an example of how educators throughout the state are struggling to find ways to follow new laws that strictly regulate storage and disposal of a long list of chemicals, many of which can be found in a typical high school chemistry class.
And, although school officials say they are willing to go to great lengths to protect their students, they are discovering that it is sometimes impossible for them to satisfy all the new government regulations.
“Schools use very small amounts of chemicals, but the laws don’t take into account the amounts, or that the chemicals are being used for research,” said Walter Wegst, director of the UCLA Office of Research and Occupational Safety.
“Writing tough laws so polluters can’t ease through loopholes is wonderful. But when you apply those same laws to educational institutions, it makes it virtually impossible for us to comply,” he said.
No one is charging that science classrooms are unsafe, or that students are working with toxic chemicals. Fire officials and people who handle hazardous chemicals are unanimous in their praise for the safety records of schools.
In fact, the move on the Science Materials Center was the first time that the Los Angeles Fire Department has ever closed a school building because of hazardous materials, Assistant Fire Chief Jim Young said.
The controversy instead centers on the storage of chemicals, some of which may have been in school cabinets for 10 to 20 years. These chemicals, authorities say, are potentially dangerous if they are not in proper containers or if they are mishandled. Moreover, some chemicals, if not disposed of properly, can be hazardous because they turn into toxic or volatile substances after their shelf lives expire.
Two state laws and a Los Angeles municipal ordinance now have jurisdiction over hundreds of schools and colleges. A 1984 law written by Assemblyman Louis Papan (D-Daly City), specifically directed at schools, mandated that all educational institutions provide a list of chemicals used in academic programs. The law stipulated that the list be updated annually and include the potential hazards of the chemicals, such as their flammability and estimated shelf life.
Law Mandates Guidelines
The Papan law also mandated that all school districts by Sept. 1, 1985, create guidelines for the “regular removal and disposal” of chemicals whose shelf life had elapsed.
In 1985, a law written by Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) increased the information required by the Papan list. The Waters law, which has jurisdiction over all businesses and nonprofit entities--including schools--in the state, also asked for information on the location of all chemicals, their quantities and potential dangers if accidentally released.
The Waters law also calls for an annual on-site inspection of schools by an outside agency, which would be given a list of all hazardous materials at the site, to monitor compliance with all parts of the legislation. Under a 1985 Los Angeles ordinance, the city’s Fire Department was designated as the agency.
“Most school districts are sort of in limbo right now trying to figure out what to do and how to do it,” said Korporaal. “Everybody takes this seriously, but they just don’t know how to put all the pieces together.”
The biggest problem is how to find chemicals that have become dangerous. If a bottle containing picric acid, for example, is broken or is involved in a fire, the crystalline substance can give off a toxic dust that is especially dangerous when it comes in contact with human skin.
“A lot of time, the school chemists don’t realize it’s a problem. They push something to the back of the shelf and leave it sitting there for 15 years,” said Steve Johnson, a civilian criminalist with the Los Angeles Police Department’s hazardous-chemicals team. “The problem varies from school to school.”
Schools are trying to clean out their chemical closets. For instance, five years ago when Cal-OSHA, the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, ordered the Burbank Unified School District to remove old chemicals, the district paid its chemistry teachers overtime to do the job on a Saturday. Any chemicals that weren’t labeled or that the teachers thought might be too dangerous to handle were tagged and later removed by hazardous-waste specialists.
“We’ve talked to the teachers about the importance of keeping up with old chemicals, but that’s always difficult to do,” said Charles Rowitz, director of secondary education in Burbank. “That’s one reason why we’re getting ready to do another cleanup.”
Twice a week at UCLA, members of the university’s occupational safety staff try to go to every laboratory on campus to pick up excess chemicals and solvents. The department urges researchers to store only small amounts of chemicals and bring unused chemicals to its offices at the end of each year.
But with 1,500 labs in which experiments range from basic chemistry to nuclear-medicine research, Wegst says there is no way that his staff can be sure that the university is always complying with the law.
The Los Angeles school district last year formed chemical-safety crews that are dispatched regularly to each of its 150 campuses with science laboratory facilities.
Crew members appear at a campus in the early evening, when most of the students have left. They go through science areas and storage rooms looking for suspect bottles, cans and containers to cart away.
The safety crews achieved notoriety last March when a member dropped five bottles of ammonium hydroxide during a sweep of Fairfax High School. The compound gave off clouds of noxious fumes that forced the evacuation of 1,000 students who were attending evening adult classes. No one was seriously injured.
Nevertheless, the 150-school sweep found hundreds of bottles of old chemicals, according to Bill Rivera, special assistant to the district’s superintendent.
“We collected so much, so fast, that it started piling up faster than we anticipated,” Rivera said. “That’s one reason why we had all of that stuff in the Science Materials Center when the Fire Department arrived.”
Expense a Problem
“Most school districts are so small that it isn’t profitable for large chemical waste disposal companies to make regular pickups at the schools,” said Korporaal of the county office of education.
For instance, in the tiny William S. Hart Union High School District, where 11,800 students attend four senior highs and three junior highs, James Bown, director of the Support Services Department, had to do some hard bargaining to get a waste-disposal company to haul away some old chemical fertilizer and solvents.
“They wanted to charge us the same amount it would cost to haul 10 gallons of something when we had only a small amount,” said Bown. “In the past, we spent very little on chemical-waste disposal, but now that this has become a big issue, we may be faced with some large bills in the future.”
To help small districts such as Hart, the county office of education is devising a plan that would make collection and disposal of waste chemicals more cost-effective.
Under the proposal, the education office would contract to have hazardous materials collected from individual schools and hauled to a central location, where a hazardous-waste disposal company would pick them up.
Every school district participating in the county plan would be expected to pay for its share of the service.
“In the long run, this should be cheaper for the schools, and they would have to go through the process every two or three years,” said Korporaal.
But it was a similar program that led the Los Angeles district into its recent troubles.
The school district had “problems because they’re dealing with so many locations,” said Richard Bingle, an assistant lab director with the bomb squad of the Los Angeles police.
‘All Sorts of Problems’
“When something is declared a hazardous waste, it creates all sorts of problems. You have to do different kinds of packaging when you are planning to reuse something versus when you plan to dispose of it. You need licensed carriers. You need to hire a safety officer who knows what he’s doing to keep an eye on things.”
To comply with the Fire Department’s orders, Los Angeles district officials have agreed to redesign collection procedures and relocate disposal of hazardous waste to Ft. MacArthur in the San Pedro area.
The former army base, now owned by the school district, has concrete bunkers where suspect chemicals can be stored safely, fire officials said.
Referring to the Van Nuys Science Materials Center, Rivera said, “If the Fire Department had just arrived three days later, those chemicals wouldn’t have been there.”