Two years after the Belmont Learning Center controversy led California to require testing for contaminants at proposed school construction sites, hundreds of districts have found harmful substances in the soil, leading to costly struggles to balance health risks, liability and cleanup costs.
Some school officials in overcrowded districts said the regulations have added costly, unnecessary delays to construction even when they believed the risk was minimal.
"Everybody wonders if we're spending all this money for nothing," said Richard Krall, who oversees construction for Chino Valley Unified School District, where state officials required a $650,000 cleanup for schools being built atop potentially hazardous methane gas.
Some pubic health advocates, however, say the program is a good start but doesn't go far enough, because it ignores the state's more than 9,000 existing public schools and doesn't mandate complete removal of all hazardous substances.
Since January 2000, investigators have tested 1,236 sites in 366 school districts under state laws adopted after the Belmont controversy.
From arsenic to zinc, inspectors have found a long list of chemicals in the soil and air at 317 of those sites, leftovers from businesses including military contractors and dairy farms. So far, state officials have required cleanups at 77 properties. School districts chose not to proceed with construction at 119 others. At others, detailed probes showed the amounts of chemicals present were not large enough to mandate cleanup, state officials said.
"In most cases it's probably not a situation where it's an obvious health problem. But in most cases, it's also not obviously safe, so you're in that gray area between 'We know it's safe' and 'We know it's harmful,' " said Richard Nickel, an environmental health scientist with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which evaluates Superfund sites. "This isn't milk we're testing."
State officials say the array of pollutants found has not been surprising. California school districts often have little choice but to consider contaminated property when they go looking for sites for new construction. Knocking down houses to build schools is seldom acceptable, leaving districts to choose from industrial and commercial sites. In rural areas, land can be laden with agricultural residue, such as pesticides.
"You got to do what you got to do," Krall said. But because children are often more vulnerable than adults to the effects of pollutants, diligence is needed for school sites, said Ron Baker, spokesman for the state Department of Toxic Controls and Substances, which oversees the state's testing program.
"We're more concerned about kids because, obviously, they're closer to the ground. They're small. Also, kids like playing in dirt and sticking their hands in their mouths," Baker said. "Breathing, touching and eating -- we're always going to be looking at those three exposure pathways."
Under the new laws, local school districts are required to pay for testing potential sites for contamination. First, historic uses of the land are analyzed, using aerial photos and relevant documents. If that analysis indicates the site might be polluted, soil and air samples are taken.
If large amounts of toxic substances are found and a district still wants to build, state officials devise a mandatory cleanup plan.
In the Chino Valley Unified School District, Liberty Elementary and Woodcrest Junior High in Ontario are being built atop former dairy cattle yards where the soil is steeped in methane gas. Aerial historical photos of the site show decades' worth of cattle manure and liquid waste stored in two giant pits as well as buried cow carcasses. The decaying waste produces methane.
Methane becomes flammable at 53,000 parts per million when it migrates above ground to small, confined places. At the Ontario school site, the state-mandated probes found methane concentrations as high as 186,000 parts per million.
At first, state officials ordered the district to dig up and remove the vast stores of animal wastes. When school district officials balked, saying they simply didn't have the $3 million it would cost, the state agreed to venting systems and liners costing about $650,000 to trap and release the gas gradually in a safe manner.
Methane has attracted considerable attention in part because it was the main contaminant found at the Belmont site. Statewide, however, other chemicals have been more prevalent.
At the 300-plus sites where environmental consultants have found "chemicals of concern," two-thirds have contained DDT or its derivative DDE, powerful pesticides and probable carcinogens. DDT was banned in 1972 but has lingered in soil for decades.
Studies indicate that long-term effects of DDT exposure include nervous system damage and increased cancer risk. State officials worry that even ground covered with grass or clean fill could be scraped bare to toxic dirt by high school athletic teams or curious younger children.
Lead is another enormous challenge -- 42% of the sites where contaminants were found have lead in the soil.
Children can develop brain damage, anemia and muscle weakness by eating paint chips or breathing particles that contain high levels of lead. Childhood exposure to lead contributes to attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder and can increase the likelihood of having a reading disability, dropping out of high school and participating in antisocial behavior, according to research.
Lead was widely used in paint until 1978. While many cities and states require lead testing in older residences, no such requirement existed for California school sites until the new laws were passed, Baker said.
Officials overseeing one school in downtown Los Angeles had to pay to truck away 144 tons of lead-contaminated soil from demolished older buildings.
Natural toxins can cause problems too. In the Sierra foothills, two school districts are coping with asbestos found naturally in serpentine deposits --California's state rock. When bulldozers cut into the rock, carcinogenic asbestos fibers can be released.
Some land uses and chemicals are not examined, such as sewage sludge or perchlorate, and testing is required only at new construction sites, not the 9,087 existing public schools statewide.
All that makes some environmentalists argue that the program is not rigorous enough.
"It's nice to have a program where we're starting to search, but
California's testing requirement is "the best in the country," said Paul Ruther, who works on child safety for the national nonprofit Center for Health Justice in Takoma Park, Md. But follow-through is also important, even if it is expensive, he added.
"I realize this is a loaded question in California because of lack of funds for everything, but I would put environmental concerns and children's health first," he said. "If you don't pay for it now, you're gonna pay for it later in more than dollars and cents."
State officials said they would be happy to expand the program, but that would require more legislation and more funds.
Angelo Bellomo, director of the environmental health and safety branch for the Los Angeles Unified School District, acknowledged that some students may be attending schools with unknown environmental hazards, but said they try to monitor and screen campuses where problems might occur.
"If we find a problem, we will find the funds," Bellomo said.
Officials of the Los Angeles district, the state's largest, backed the law requiring more upfront testing for school construction, partly because of their experience with Belmont.
Work on Belmont began in 1997 but was stopped three years later amid worries about methane from former oil wells beneath the 35-acre property. After extensive work to reduce the hazard, the school district voted in May to finish the school, which, at $286 million, is the most expensive school construction project in state history. Environmentalists and regulators say that history lends support to the argument that testing sites before construction saves money in the long run.
But officials at some districts remain skeptical, arguing the testing requirements can add unnecessary, costly delays to construction.
Brian Sullivan, director of facilities for the Oceanside Unified School District, said it was hard enough to find sites for four new schools because of community opposition to building on picturesque farmland.
After clearing those hurdles, he said, the district found itself with expensive, time-consuming tests mandated under the new state laws.
Oceanside officials have always done pre-construction environmental assessments, he said, and have dealt with methane from landfills and toxic substances, including evacuating two schools in the late 1980s.
"All I know is prior to the existence of this law, we were pretty much taking care of these issues ourselves," he said.
In Ontario, meanwhile, near the school sites atop the old cattle yards, many area parents don't seem worried. In 2000, district officials mailed notices to 340 area residents informing them of the methane. Thirteen families expressed concern.
Leticia Campos, who lives across the street, is just excited that two of her children will attend "state of the art" facilities.
Methane-rich soil "is the type of land we live on," Campos said. "The school district wouldn't do anything to harm the kids. "We live in this dangerous world, and dangers are everywhere. It's just one more danger."