In Logan Heights, one of San Diego's poorest communities, an empty plot of land lies between 31st and 32nd Streets bordered by Martin Avenue to the north and Greely Avenue to the south. There's nothing particularly striking about this 6.5-acre plot, or, rather, it is the existence of nothing that is so compelling. Surrounded by a buckling chain-link fence, the vacant lot is home to unrestrained weed growth, brown thorny bushes and a few decaying trees at the site's edges.
It also currently serves as a makeshift playground for the students of the Alternative Learning for Behavior and Attitude (ALBA) Community School. However, the emptiness of the parcel is filled not only by children's play but also by the unseen presence of lead arsenic, cadmium, barium, zinc and dioxins.
The Logan Heights site, owned by the San Diego Unified School District, is the proposed location for a new elementary school-Laura Rodriguez Elementary-that would alleviate overcrowding at three neighboring elementary schools, Logan, King and Perkins.
To open up more room for the school, the district has also purchased neighboring properties. Rodriguez Elementary requires acquisition of 17 homes on 14 parcels, which means relocation of 16 families comprising 71 residents, according to district officials.
Capable of accommodating 700 to 900 students, Rodriguez Elementary will reduce enrollment at King, Logan and Perkins elementary schools by 200, 405 and 40 students, respectively. Although the school will not open until fall 2006, cleanup work began Monday.
The opening of Rodriguez Elementary on the contaminated lot has sparked a debate between the Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC), the state regulatory agency that oversees cleanup of proposed school sites, and the Environmental Health Coalition (EHC), a San Diego-based organization for environmental and social justice.
While the school district and DTSC propose to reduce the lead levels at the site to 255 parts per million, the amount the state and federal government legally permit, EHC doesn't think the legal maximum amount is good enough. As Leticia Ayala, EHC's director of the Campaign to Eliminate Childhood Lead Poisoning, explained, "The issue we have before us is whether or not this proposed school site will be a healthy environment for children to learn."
The presence of lead in the soil is particularly alarming because prolonged exposure to the metal contaminant is the primary cause of lead poisoning. Although some cases are fatal, lead poisoning most frequently causes varying degrees of brain damage, as well as aggressive-behavior problems.
"There is zero amount of lead that should be in our bodies," Ayala said.
According to DTSC's website, the school district traced the present contamination to "lead-based paint from structures, undocumented fill material, landfill gases from the suspected former dumpsite adjacent to the site and potential impacts from a former incinerator." The district, under state supervision, intends to remove roughly 363 cubic yards-545 tons-of contaminated soil, which will be transported off-site in an estimated 28 truckloads.
"After the soil is transported to approved off-site disposal facilities," DTSC's website goes on to explain, "clean fill soil will be imported to fill the excavated areas." When the soil transfer is complete, "confirmation sampling will be conducted to verify that the lead and arsenic contaminated soil has been removed."
Jeanne Garcia, DTSC's information officer for Southern California schools, explained that "soil will be removed until [the grounds] are verified safe."
The cleanup plan is "pretty routine," said school district spokesperson Erika Wilgenburg. The district is "taking this seriously.... We are working closely with DTSC experts to ensure that the removal and cleanup work meets state and federal standards."
However, EHC's Ayala said DTSC's approach is insufficient, arguing the state is "not taking the precautionary approach. Basically what they are doing is calculating how much they should clean up based on [the idea] of how much toxics [they] can leave behind, instead of how much [they] should be cleaning up so that children aren't going to be exposed to these huge hazards."
The state, Ayala added, "is being completely irresponsible. They are not looking out for... the people's health."
After the site was selected last spring, DTSC sent fliers directly to parents explaining the presence of toxins in the soil and the plan to clean the place up. On Sept. 17, DTSC sponsored a meeting, welcoming the community to ask questions and express concerns. With a Spanish translator present, DTSC outlined the cleanup plan.
Yet, as Ayala tells it, the meeting occurred only because EHC put pressure on state: "The parents brought the issue to us, instead of DTSC [bringing the issue to the community]. We had to fight to get them to have a community meeting."
DTSC also accepted public comments between Sept. 2 and Oct. 1. Garcia said her agency "received about 20 comments, most of which came from EHC." Although DTSC's intention was to address these concerns by fine-tuning the original proposal, Garcia could not comment on how the plan had been adjusted to meet specific public concerns.
After the Sept. 17 meeting, DTSC offered to hold a private meeting with representatives from EHC, but EHC declined. "They wanted to meet with us and explain to us their position, which was basically the same position they had when they came to the community meeting," Ayala said. "Nothing had changed. We had asked for several things.... One of them was tell us how much contaminated soil [they] were leaving behind. How many extra truckloads would it take to clean it up? Why is it that [DTSC] is using outdated information when we know lead is highly toxic? Why would [they] even consider leaving it behind?"
In the October edition of the Toxinformer, EHC's monthly magazine, EHC details the outdated information Ayala alleges DTSC relies upon. DTSC's standard of 255 parts per million [ppm] "is higher than the more health protective goal of 150 ppm set by the California Environmental Protection Agency and was determined by using an outdated blood-lead level standard of 10 micrograms per deciliter. Recent scientific evidence shows that there is no safe level of lead for children."
Ayala elaborated on EHC's refusal to meet again with DTSC, explaining that EHC didn't get any of what it asked for. "So, to us," she said, "it made no sense to sit with them [without] any new information. To us that was a frustration. They are completely violating community participation, their own policies. Why even have a community meeting if you aren't willing to research, address and answer a community's concerns?"
Garcia acknowledged that DTSC is having difficulty negotiating with EHC's "basically zero tolerance perspective.... Toxicologists have proved that lead is a naturally occurring metal. So, it cannot be eliminated completely."
Yet, while lead is a natural element, DTSC's site map of the area reveals portions where naturally occurring lead proves to be considerably lower than DTSC's 255-ppm standard. "There are actually sites that have as low as 2 ppm," Ayala said. "So let's get it down to 2 ppm. Why 255 ppm?"
Because EHC's efforts to alter the state's cleanup plan have been unsuccessful, the organization has begun to redirect its focus to putting more pressure on the school district. "We're planning on going to one of the school board meetings, hopefully in December, with a lot of community members," Ayala said. "The parents here want a school. They know that the overflowing at Logan Elementary is a problem, so they welcome a new school. But, they don't want something that is going to be built on contaminated soil. So, they are willing to put pressure on the school to consider another site."
Failing that, EHC wants a more complete cleanup of the proposed site. "We are asking for a full cleanup," Ayala said, "and what they are proposing is to still leave 255 ppm of contaminated soil in our ground. Their answer to us is, "This is our protocol. This is what we do for all the schools....' We are not going to let them do their own process just because they say that it's protocol."
Even if DTSC removes the traces of lead to EHC's satisfaction, EHC views the removal process itself as another problematic issue.
On its website, DTSC explains the precautions their crew will take during the soil removal. In addition to outfitting workers with masks to reduce dust inhalation, DTSC ensures the neighborhood that the crew will water down the soil before it's dug up to minimize airborne travel of the pollutants.
However, these precautionary measures don't quell EHC's concerns. EHC wants the state to relocate ALBA students during soil removal "because we know that dust is going to be picked up and it's going to filter into the neighborhood. DTSC workers will be wearing suits and using masks," Ayala pointed out before asking, "Are the children going to be wearing masks? I don't think so."
While this polemic issue remains unsettled, school district officials continue to express concern for the community. District spokesperson Wilgenburg said the district "shares the same concerns as the community and parents-the health and safety of our students and staff, which is why we're making sure that the entire community and parents are informed of how the district intends to make the site safe for the brand new school.... The efforts will result in a site that is absolutely safe for our students."Yet, Ayala maintains that the problem extends beyond the immediate site in question. Neighborhoods in and around Logan Heights "are one of the hot spots for children with lead poisoning," she said. "What's not being taken into consideration is that kids are already exposed to toxics in their homes such as the lead-based paint. Then they come to school and get an extra dosage? That is just ridiculous."