Schools Built on Hazardous Land

Monday, March 19th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) -Twenty-three years after she blew the whistle on Love Canal, Lois Gibbs says school districts across the nation are still building schools on unsafe land.

In a report issued Monday, her organization said school districts across the nation have built schools on or near unsuitable sites, posing potential health risks to students and teachers.

``What makes it worse is that we know better, or should know better,'' said Gibbs.

Among the ``poisoned schools'' cited by the Virginia-based Center for Health, Environment and Justice is Los Angeles' Belmont Learning Complex. The nation's costliest high school has never been completed because of fears of contamination from the former oil field and industrial site on which it is located.

School administrators say they are aware of the problems that could result from building on former industrial sites and the necessity of conducting their own thorough inspections.

``The people who have built on brownfield sites have had nothing but problems,'' said Bruce Hunter, director of public policy for the American Association of School Administrators. ``The word of that goes through the profession. That kind of stuff, everybody hears about. In fact, frequently it ends up getting the superintendent fired.''

Ron Baker, spokesman for the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, said a 1998 state review of several projects in Los Angeles found poor environmental evaluation by the school district.

In one instance, he said, a city-hired inspector who couldn't get into a site simply peered through a chain-link fence before approving the project.

At Belmont, he said, the company that sold the land to the city hired the firm that performed the environmental assessment. Belmont has since been shown to be contaminated with crude oil, acetone and other dangerous compounds.

Since then, California has changed the way it approves school sites, sending its own inspectors to advise districts, Baker said.

``If these assessments aren't done properly, you wind up with problems down the road with residual contamination, and that's what we're trying to avoid.''

Federal officials say a recent boom in school enrollment will force school districts to build 2,400 new schools by 2003.

But without federal guidelines and strict supervision, the report says districts run a greater risk of building future schools on polluted land or near industrial sites.

The state and local environmental guidelines that school districts follow are often inadequate to ensure that sites are safe enough for children, who tend to be more vulnerable to toxic chemicals, the report says.

In 1978, Gibbs led the campaign to convince New York officials that chemical and other waste buried under the Love Canal community was making residents sick. The fight began at 99th Street School, which her children attended.