Dirty Secrets Under the Schoolyard

On the west side of Chicago, just five miles from the gleaming Loop, the Little Village Lawndale High School is the pride of this working-class community. It’s an impressive, $63-million campus, where 1,400 students hit the books beneath mosaics, glass curtain walls and a Mayan solar calendar. There’s a two-story atrium, two gyms, a child-care center, a health clinic, and long-distance learning labs.

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But even with the new school, young people have trouble finding safe places to hang out in Little Village, where 95,000 people live among factories and trucking depots. In addition to the omnipresent gangs, a coal-fired power plant looms over the community. Container trucks crowd the street, trundling freight bound for the suburbs.

There are so many environmental hazards in Little Village, in fact, that local activists offer “toxic tours” of the neighborhood. One time, a visiting boy complained about the air quality, what with all the diesel exhaust, coal smoke, garbage and chemical fumes. A few minutes later, his face was crimsoned by a torrential nosebleed. “We had to come back and just do a ‘virtual’ toxic tour,” recalls one of the guides.

polluted schools' width=©www.jaydunn.comAnd the school can’t offer refuge from the pollution. When it was built, the city had to construct $3 million worth of barriers beneath it to protect students from contaminated groundwater, the legacy of a soybean processing plant that once stood here. A nearby elementary school has had problems with caustic fumes emanating from a workshop across the street. Parents staged protests to move the location of another planned elementary school for similar reasons. “They wanted the school, but they didn’t want it there because they used the space for parking trucks that had chemicals in them,” remembers Carolina, 17, a young activist who lives in the neighborhood. “The chemicals had spilled in the soil.”

polluted schools' width=As in Little Village, cities across the nation are building schools on contaminated ground, igniting grassroots opposition and straining already slashed school budgets with the costs of needed remediation. The practice is much more common that most people realize, and not just in the inner city. According to one study, one out of every seven rural school sites in California had to be cleaned up either before or after construction. School districts defend their use of industrial sites as safe and as a necessary step in redeveloping down-and-out neighborhoods. Yet parents and environmentalists worry that current regulations do little to protect the school children and may contribute to health, learning and behavior problems. Only a few states have environmental standards for school sites, meaning that there are virtually no laws against building an elementary school on a former landfill or, say, across the street from a paint factory.

Why Build a School on Polluted Land?

polluted schools © Photo: Lenny Siegel

It might seem like a no-brainer: Just don’t build a school anywhere near a factory. Why mix smokestacks with backpacks, dumping grounds with playgrounds? “It’s a very bad idea to develop schools on industrial sites,” says Justin Hollander, a professor of urban planning at Tufts University. “The ideal is to develop them for new industrial or commercial uses. Any adult population won’t be affected by whatever pollution may remain after cleanup. That’s not the case with children, whose systems are still growing and developing.”

But in many places, urban as well as rural, there is no pristine ground available. “The only thing we have left in the community is industrial land,” says Kimberly Wasserman, who coordinates the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. “If city officials are going to build schools, we want to work with them to make sure that it’s cleaned up to the best of their abilities.”

That’s not as easy as it sounds. The U.S. may have as many as a million former industrial sites, called “brownfields.” Even when the factories, rail yards, dumps, refineries or warehouses have been torn down, toxic residues often remain in the ground. What’s more, smart-growth policies—beloved by environmentalists as a way to cut carbon-spewing commuter traffic—call for reclaiming all the available land within cities instead of breaking virgin ground outside them.

Financial and political factors also figure prominently into decisions about where to build schools. In Chicago, for example, the school district has to first prioritize which neighborhoods need a new school, then find affordable land and win approval from the city council. Town officials test the proposed site for possible contamination—but by the time they’ve reached the testing phase, the project may have too much momentum to stop, even if the test uncovers significant pollution.

A Lack of Regulation

Ironically, Chicago is located in one of the few states that regulates where schools should be built. Illinois requires the state’s environmental agency to review environmental testing done at all potential school sites before construction can proceed. But the law does not cover religious and for-profit schools, and schools built before the law was passed are also not tested unless they undergo renovation or expansion.

Most states have much less oversight. A 2006 study by Rhode Island Legal Services found that 20 states had no laws that would force districts to investigate possible contamination at schools or inform the public. This past September, the story of one contaminated school exploded into the blogosphere after the Los Angeles Times reported that the city’s brand-new Carson-Gore Academy of Environmental Sciences was built where there had once been tanks of chemicals. As crews worked to replace tainted soil with clean fill in time for the first day of school, conservative pundits used the situation to skewer environmentalists, especially the school’s namesakes, naturalist and environmental crusader Rachel Carson and former Vice President Al Gore.

Some observers call Carson-Gore a victory for student safety. The district discovered the problem and moved to correct it before students ever set foot in the school. That has not always been the case in California.

During the 1990s, the Los Angeles Unified School District fast-tracked school constructions in an effort to relieve its vastly overcrowded classrooms, cutting short its public comment process. A few years later, state regulators discovered that L.A. had built 13 schools on contaminated land—schools that were, by this time, full of students. Spurred by this controversy, California passed rigorous new standards to guide school siting. The sort of public input that L.A. had eschewed is now mandated. The state’s environmental agency reviews all proposed school sites. But environmental justice activists like Robina Suwol of California Safe Schools point out that these reviews lack teeth. They may not occur until after a future school site has been purchased. Moreover, Suwol says regulators lack the power to say ‘no’ when school districts want to build on contaminated ground.”

Ironically, California’s school siting policy–widely viewed as the best in the nation and a model for other states–may not be strict enough. Carson-Gore met the policy’s criteria, yet it continues to have problems. According to Suwol, a number of the school’s classrooms recently had be to evacuated because of petroleum-like odors.

Parental Outrage

Not surprisingly, school projects can trigger pyrotechnic emotions when parents believe that officials have compromised their children’s health. Sometimes, their outrage outweighs science, creating a hostile atmosphere in which it’s impossible for school officials to rebuild the community’s trust in their intentions. This was the case in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. In 2005, the local school superintendent decided to build the new, “green” Kimberton Elementary School on an old dump next to a Superfund site. Mike Ellis, a parent in the district, helped lead the fight against the project. A coalition quickly formed. “Some parents had sick kids who were very frightened to send them to a possibly polluted environment. Some just thought it was a stupid idea and couldn’t fathom letting it pass,” Ellis says. For his part, Ellis feared that building the school would hurt the community’s image—and property values. “If you Googled ‘Kimberton’ and found ‘school on a Superfund site,’ what family would want to move there?” he asks.

The parents’ concern morphed into outrage when they learned that their public officials were less than honest in what they disclosed. Parents called local television stations, which sent helicopters to hover over the proposed site. In 2008, the city attorney found his car trashed at the local YMCA.

As at L.A.’s Carson-Gore school, there’s an ironic subtext to this saga. Although no one would criticize the parents for voicing their fears, none of the environmental scientists involved concluded that the site posed a health hazard to students. An independent toxicologist recruited by the parents came to the same conclusion.

Parents wanted the site rejected even so. Ultimately, it was. In 2008, the school district officially abandoned its plan after investing at least $4 million and perhaps as much as $7 million. (The final total is the subject of current litigation.)

Can a National Policy Work?

Lois Marie Gibbs thinks that Uncle Sam has to set an example for states to follow. Her vision for new national policies and local reforms may offer the best recipe for minimizing risks to students.

Gibbs was one of the original residents of Love Canal, New York, and fought for the relocation of 900 families who lived in that community, where tens of thousands of tons of toxic waste had been buried in the 1950s, giving rise to high rates of birth defects and miscarriages more than 20 years later. Little surprise, then, that she has been an outspoken critic of building schools on contaminated sites. The Center for Health, Environment & Justice, located in Falls Church, Virginia, was founded by Gibbs and fields inquiries from parents concerned about their children’s health at school. More than 250 people have signed up for “Twitter parties” organized by the Center to discuss school health. Gibbs says that parents’ concerns are justified, although they do not always grasp the enormous health implications of the school site itself.

“The school board members making these decisions are not scientists or engineers,” Gibbs says, “so they are often reassured the land is safe but have little means to check. Their budgets are stretched to the limit, and [they are not likely to] investigate when they have been assured the land is suitable.”

Gibbs has called on the EPA to ban the building of schools on or near hazardous waste facilities, including Superfund sites, the most contaminated plots of land in the nation. She also wants to see the EPA adopt a rigorous set of standards to guide the cleanup of polluted school sites. But the EPA’s new siting guidelines are voluntary and school districts are free to ignore them.

Even when school districts do adopt the EPA standards, they will find them difficult to enforce amidst the chaos of the construction process, according to Tufts’ Hollander. “There’s always human error,” he says. “These projects have so many contractors and subcontractors working on them. All the oversight in the world is not enough.”

And sometimes school buildings are occupied for years before contamination is uncovered. For instance, in certain conditions, long-buried pollution can enter buildings as vapor. School districts must remain vigilant long after a building is completed, according to Lenny Siegel of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight in Mountain View, California. Siegel has reviewed numerous schools built on brownfields to assess potential risks to students. “The key is how does one operate, maintain and monitor a school to prevent exposures?“ he asks.

Despite these challenges, Gibbs argues that school districts must enact stronger environmental policies at the local level. “The local or state policies can have the words ‘must’ and ‘never,’ which the EPA guidelines won’t have,” she says.

Opening Up the Siting Process

The current system of consultant-led environmental testing does not protect children from pollution in and around their schools, say environmental and public advocacy groups. The agency that oversees Chicago’s $500-million school building program has only two environmental staff members. The rest of the environmental review has to be done by an army of consultants who may be loathe to criticize their employers. As Steven Fischbach of Rhode Island Legal Services explains, “Often, environmental consultants try not to find contamination, because then their clients won’t have to spend money for costly cleanups. It happens all the time.”

The community lawyer recalls one Rhode Island school built near a former smelter. Smelters generally produce high levels of lead, but when the school district’s consultant conducted environmental tests there, he didn’t find the heavy metal. Alarmed, a community member arranged to have soil samples taken again. Sure enough, those samples contained lead, and at levels so high that the state’s environmental agency ordered a cleanup before the school could be built.

If districts are willing to spend hundreds of millions of public dollars to build schools—and boast about how green those schools are—they should be eager to demonstrate that the site has been properly cleaned and designed. As one environmental health expert remarked, “Transparency is the best response to fear.”

Achieving such transparency will require extra outreach efforts, especially when the issues involve complex science. When New York City built a four-school campus on a former Bronx rail yard, a group of public-interest lawyers working for the parents asked Lenny Siegel and another consultant, Peter Strauss, to review the school district’s plans. Siegel and Strauss ultimately produced a checklist showing which agency is responsible for each task in maintaining school safety. For example, any parent can see at a glance that the schools’ ventilation systems must be inspected once a year—and check whether it has been done.

This checklist represents a real victory for the Bronx parents. Unfortunately, it’s also an unprecedented document representing years of work. Nowhere else do parents have such a guide.

Even so, Fischbach, Siegel and Gibbs all emphasize the more public involvement there is, the better. Concerned parents and citizens can more than make up for deficient policies by crowding hearing rooms, writing letters and organizing protests. An informed, energized public may well provide more protection than the best regulations. Says Fischbach: “It increases the probability that somewhere along the line there will be one or more people who will step up and say that a site should not be used for a school because of environmental health concerns.”

Here lies the rub. Not all “publics” are equal. In Phoenixville, media-savvy parents like Mike Ellis knew how to draw attention to the Superfund site next to a proposed school. In Little Village, environmental activists organized the community to mobilize quickly to pressure elected officials. Not every community is so well organized. It seems likely that disadvantaged communities may suffer more—and they are the same communities that desperately need new schools. To request a rigorous environmental review can mean that if significant contamination is discovered at the proposed site the community may lose that facility and all the investment—new sidewalks, improved lighting, playgrounds, free meals—that come with it.

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