Lead found at site of proposed playground

Times Staff Writer

Dangerous levels of lead have been found under a parking lot that the Los Angeles Unified School District plans to turn into playing fields for Virgil Middle School, reigniting the ire of project opponents.

The district plans to move the school's current playing fields to build an elementary school on the site.

Past reports have found contaminants on the land and groundwater under the future fields, which now contain commercial property and Virgil's teacher parking lot. Cleanup costs are expected to reach $10 million.

On Friday, teachers received a notice from the state Division of Toxic Substances Control informing them that lead levels exceeding safety standards had been found in the ground under the gravel lot. The lot was paved over the weekend to contain the lead, which could be harmful if inhaled.

According to the Division of Toxic Substances Control, lead levels at the site were found to be more than 100 times the recommended limit of 255 milligrams per kilogram in samples taken a month ago.

"We've been walking on that for years," said math teacher Maria Magana, who has been among the most vocal opponents of the project. "This is exactly what the teachers mean when they say they don't trust the district to do the $10-million cleanup correctly."

Officials said the lead did not pose a health hazard.

"There is no immediate threat of exposure to the contamination because the lead is located beneath the ground surface and is covered with gravel that serves as a barrier," the agency notice sent to teachers Friday stated. The paving was done to "enhance the integrity of the barrier between the contamination and the people to prevent any potential exposure."

Tom Watson, a consultant with L.A. Unified's Office of Environmental Health and Safety, said the site probably was contaminated by paint chips from prior businesses. The dirty soil will be removed before new fields are laid out.

Teachers told The Times they were very worried about past exposure. They said huge potholes and thinning gravel were filled with fresh pebbles earlier this year.

"This wouldn't be happening on the Westside," said Virgil teacher Theodora Beltson.

The area to the north of Virgil, where the playing fields are planned, has a history of contamination and was repeatedly passed over in favor of other sites. Among the contaminants found on the site in the past were benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, vinyl chloride, MTBE, gasoline and perchloroethene.

The sources of some of the underground water contamination are unknown. One possible source is the nearby Midway Ford auto body shop, records show. Unless the sources are cleaned up, the water could become re-contaminated, officials said, which could in turn re-contaminate the future playing fields.

The district's environmental consultant said a barrier is planned around the fields to prevent recontamination, with wells outside the perimeter to monitor off-site pollution.



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