Beverly Hills Ignores Belmont's Toxic Lessons

The pollution problems that have turned the Belmont Learning Center site into the most expensive school construction project in state history are well known. Similar problems are delaying or scuttling new schools throughout California. However, there is also a clear and present danger at many of the state's 9,000 existing public schools that has been mostly ignored.

One example is Beverly Hills High School. Venoco Inc. runs 18 crude oil and natural gas wellheads there that have been active for decades. From projections in a 1974 city document, the school and the city of Beverly Hills stood to make as much as $50 million from this operation over the life of the lease.

But what are the costs to students and staff? We contend that toxic fumes from oil and gas operations at the campus have caused cancer. Our firm represents 632 former students, teachers and employees from Beverly Hills High School in lawsuits against the city of Beverly Hills, the Beverly Hills school district and the operators of the wellheads.

In 2002, we met 28-year-old Beverly Hills High alumna Lori Moss, in remission from Hodgkin's lymphoma and battling thyroid cancer. Through our research, we found more than 50 other graduates with Hodgkin's lymphoma that could be tied to emissions from the Venoco facility. There are hundreds more battling maladies that could be similarly linked.

In a 1984 environmental checklist, the city of Beverly Hills asked the oil refinery the following: Could there be air emissions or deterioration of the air? Could this facility result in any health hazard or exposure of people to potential health hazards? Could this facility explode in the event of an accident or "upset"? The response to all was, "maybe."

Why were the students and staff not told of this danger? Why was there no testing to monitor the situation? Where was the South Coast Air Quality Management District all these years? For 25 years, the AQMD never tested this site; it finally did when we came on the scene.

We had the school tested and were surprised by the results. They found elevated readings of benzene, a known carcinogen; n-Hexane, a known neuro-toxin; and methane, an explosive gas -- the same gas found under the Belmont site.

When the AQMD finally tested the site, its estimate of the benzene being emitted was higher than what the state deems acceptable. The school district did not want to work with us, nor did it invite the California Department of Toxic Substances Control to test the site. This is the agency responsible for ensuring the health and welfare of schoolchildren. Instead, it hired its own consultant to do a risk assessment at the school.

We believe the school's hired gun wrote a report that is fatally flawed. It did not adequately investigate sources of carcinogens at this site and used insufficient data to conduct its study. The report was prepared in summary form, and supporting data are not in it or available for public review. Nor was it submitted for approval to the AQMD or the Department of Toxic Substances Control; therefore, it has no regulatory standing.

Even this report found methane gas on the campus at 227,000 parts per million in the field and 100,000 ppm in the lab. This is at the high end of explosive limits. The Belmont site's fact sheet indicates the majority of the methane gas levels measured there were below 5,000 ppm. Benzene was also found at levels in the soil vapor gas that elevate the risk of developing cancer.

We challenge Beverly Hills High to allow the Department of Toxic Substances Control to do open testing and make the results public -- and the AQMD to be the watchdog agency it is supposed to be.

Erin Brockovich-Ellis is director of research and Edward L. Masry is a partner in the law firm representing plaintiffs in these cases.

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