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What lies beneath

Parts Per Million

The Poisoning of Beverly Hills High School

Joy Horowitz

Viking: 442 pp., $25.95

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DRIVING along Olympic Boulevard, past the Eiffel Tower-shaped oil pump next to Beverly Hills High School’s athletic field, one could always muse about how fitting it was, in a social Darwinist sort of way, that one of the nation’s richest public high schools sits on an oil field generating millions of dollars for an already wealthy school district and city. So unfair.

On the other hand, it always seemed a little bit creepy that such an industrial object -- never mind its ugly flower-power wrapping -- was whirring away in the middle of some of the most prized real estate in the country.

It was jarring, if not altogether unexpected in this age of environmental nervousness-bordering-on-neurosis, when, in 2003, news reports about the “poisonous oil wells” at Beverly Hills High began seeping out of the city, thanks in part to the recently minted environmental celebrity Erin Brockovich, who had begun investigating claims of an unusually high incidence of cancer among generations of students and teachers.

Brockovich, fresh off her Oscar triumph (well, technically, it was Julia Roberts’ triumph), began sniffing around Beverly Hills High after meeting Lori Moss, a 1992 graduate who’d been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease and thyroid cancer. Brockovich sampled the school’s air and soil and persuaded her lawyer boss, Ed Masry, that they had a good case. But the pair, famous for winning $333 million for the residents of Hinkley, Calif., after PG&E contaminated their drinking water with chromium-6, needed to find potential Beverly Hills High victims -- lots of them. The only way to do that quickly was to sound the alarm. One terrifying sweeps-week television news report later, an environmental health crisis was born. Lawsuits ensued.

Joy Horowitz, a freelance journalist, was assigned by Los Angeles magazine to write a story about the controversy. Her investigation led to “Parts Per Million,” a very long, very complicated tale that is worth the slog.

Horowitz, sympathetic to those who believe their health was compromised by the fumes and oil residue that drifted across the school’s track and into classrooms, comes to the story with unique credentials. She graduated from the school in 1971 and was struck at her 30th reunion by how many former classmates had cancer. Even more telling is her family’s experience with cancer and lawsuits. Her father, she writes, “was the first American to successfully sue a cigarette company in a court of law.” He died of mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lung usually caused by exposure to asbestos. He had smoked Kents, promoted as a “ ‘health’ brand in the 1950s because of their Micronite filters. In fact, the filters were made of asbestos.” Her parents taught her that making “the connection between cancer and environmental factors is not only possible -- it’s imperative.”

Chemical emissions from the Beverly Hills High pumping site and at a nearby plant in Century City include the carcinogen benzene. One environmental expert working for Brockovich and Masry, who died in 2005, reported that the incidence of Hodgkin’s disease among Beverly High graduates from 1976 to 2000 was three times the rate one would expect to see among their peers. “In the world of toxic torts,” writes Horowitz, “a doubling of the incidence is usually enough to prevail in court.” (This was vigorously disputed by the defendants’ experts.) Parents were torn. Some yanked their kids out of school. Some were outright hostile to the idea that the campus could be poisoning their children.

Horowitz set herself a yeoman’s task. Toxic tort litigation is nasty, brutish and long, neither for the faint of heart nor the short of attention span. She spent three years interviewing students, teachers, parents, local and state politicians, school board members, lawyers for the alleged victims, lawyers for the defendant oil and energy companies. She talked to toxicologists, oncologists, epidemiologists, environmental scientists, petroleum engineers. She attended community meetings, City Hall meetings, school board meetings. She toured the drilling site and the Sempra facility (which, she writes, the EPA considers a “major source” of air pollution), and made Freedom of Information Act requests. (Release of information about any radioactive materials at the wells was denied, appallingly, by state health officials, who cited post-9/11 homeland security concerns.)

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Although Horowitz comes up short in the proof department (not her fault; proof is elusive in cases such as these), she makes a compelling case that instead of making a genuine effort to discover whether emissions from drilling and energy production were harming the teenagers and teachers of Beverly Hills, the city and school district went into lawsuit mode. They seemed to be more interested in defending themselves than in learning the truth and, possibly, protecting the children and employees for whom they were responsible.

Partly, this is because the lawsuits forced the city and district into a defensive crouch. But there was also, Horowitz argues persuasively, a powerful incentive -- almost bigger than the millions of dollars in oil royalties that have flowed over the years to Beverly Hills and its schools -- to persuade the world that the city would never compromise the health of its children.

After all, the words “Beverly Hills” are shorthand for privilege, success and -- especially when it comes to children -- a pampered, nothing-but-the-best way of life; so the idea that generations of students had been exposed to toxic chemicals was a serious public relations problem for the city, the school district and Venoco Inc., which took over the drilling operation in 1995.

Horowitz’s narrative sometimes gets lost in abstruse passages jam-packed with information about chemicals, oil drilling operations, scientific studies, regulatory agencies and how “facts” can be shaded to favor either side.

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But along the way, she rewards the reader with fascinating nuggets. The women of California’s Marin County, for instance, have the highest rate of breast cancer in the nation -- and the only risk factor identified so far is two glasses of wine or more a day.

Horowitz also briefly incorporates into her story a compelling -- and for my money, under-examined -- aspect of life in Beverly Hills, namely the tension between its relatively recent Persian immigrants and other city residents, which happened to surface among the anti-oil well PTA moms of the school who risked their social standing in the community when they joined forces to present a cohesive front, at least for a while.

Leaving aside whether links between the oil wells and the Sempra plant’s hazardous emissions will ever be conclusively proven, Horowitz’s book is also a primer on an important aspect of Los Angeles that most people don’t think much about, if they ever knew it in the first place: The L.A. basin, she reminds us, sits on a series of oil fields, and California is the largest oil-producing state behind Alaska, Texas and Louisiana. Since 1900, 30,000 wells have been dug in the region, though today, only about 5,000 are in operation, including 15 at the Hillcrest Country Club in Los Angeles, 19 at Beverly Hills High School, 22 at the Rancho Park golf course and 40 next to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in West L.A.

There is nothing pretty about drilling for oil, which is why back in the 1950s, the city of Los Angeles required disguising oil pumps in residential and business districts. But all the disguises in the world can’t prevent leaks, escaping vapors and accidents. In 1979, Beverly Hills amended its municipal code outlawing oil drilling anywhere in the city -- except the high school.

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Last year, a judge dismissed the first 12 toxic tort cases, ruling there was not enough evidence to establish that cancers were caused by the industrial operations on or near the school grounds. They are being appealed, and more are in the pipeline, as it were.

The lease agreement governing drilling at the school is due to expire in 2016. Meanwhile, oil extraction continues apace, as does the Century City operation, formerly owned by a Sempra Energy subsidiary, which, reports Horowitz, pays “emission fees” for releasing into the air such carcinogens as formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and benzene.

There’s no upbeat “Erin Brockovich"-style ending here. Answers to life-and-death questions turn out to be as elusive as the steam that wafts to this day over the playing fields and into the classrooms of perhaps the world’s most famous high school. •


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