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L.A. Unified sues city housing authority over cost of lead, arsenic cleanup at Watts high school

L.A. Unified sues city housing authority over cost of lead, arsenic cleanup at Watts high school
Keiandre Thompson, 25, holds an umbrella for his aunt, Mildred Martin, 76, in front of a building that will be knocked down and rebuilt as a residential home and retail space during the first phase of a project at Jordan Downs Housing Development in Watts. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Unified School District has spent more than $1 million in the last three years cleaning lead and arsenic from the soil at David Starr Jordan High School in Watts.

Now the school district is suing the city's housing authority to get those costs covered.

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The district says that the contamination seeped into the soil from a neighboring parcel of land that the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles bought in 2008 to develop.

The school district says the school's arsenic and lead levels are currently safe but that the housing authority needs to take responsibility for the work that's already been done as well as for any future work.

"This is an environmental cleanup cost recovery action," said L.A. Unified general counsel Dave Holmquist. "We have not been able to get the housing authority to step up and do what their responsibility is."

The site was used for heavy industry from the 1930s to the 1970s. Scrap metal was stored there, and furnaces melted scrap iron for use in steel products.

"Some of our own investigation showed that the very identical contamination at the property had spread way beyond the border of that wall onto the high school property," said Barry Groveman, an attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the school district.

The housing authority "has done nothing to address the hazardous contamination that has migrated" from the site to the school site, despite "the sensitive nature of the school's occupants and the daily exposure for eight hours a day to the contaminants at issue," the suit alleges.

Housing officials say the lawsuit surprised them. Doug Guthrie, the housing authority's president and CEO, said the school district has not proved that the contamination on campus spread from the industrial site next door, and hasn't itemized its costs or said how much money it is asking for.

"I have no idea what they've excavated," Guthrie said. "I have no idea what any of their bills are."

According to the lawsuit, the housing authority told the school district in 2016 that it would not investigate contaminant levels beyond its property line because such an investigation could put potential federal funding at risk.

Guthrie said that he would have preferred a solution that didn't involve court, and that school officials have not returned his emails for weeks. School district lawyers said L.A. Unified employees had not ignored any such emails.

State regulators ordered the housing authority in 2014 to test for and clean lead contamination and harmful metals at the Jordan Downs housing project homes near its plot of land.

But Guthrie said no one had determined if the housing authority also was responsible for the school property.

"We want to be good neighbors. … We're the ones who stepped in to clean up this 50-year-old site. And we spent a lot of money on it," Guthrie said. "We're not the bad guys here. We never polluted any of this site."

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Reach Sonali Kohli at Sonali.Kohli@latimes.com or on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli.

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