Kids returning to school Tuesday at four LAUSD campuses were met with temporary fencing around some grass and dirt areas to keep them from walking through or playing on lead-tainted soil.
KPCC reported in July that over the past two years, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control has found elevated levels of lead at five L.A. Unified schools near the old Exide lead battery recycling plant in Vernon. Until now, the agency hasn’t removed the contaminated soil.
Last week, Toxic Substances Control took another step: It collected additional soil samples from four of the schools: Lorena Street Elementary School, Rowan Elementary School and Eastman Avenue Elementary School in Boyle Heights; and Fishburn Avenue Elementary School in Maywood.
In an Aug. 2 letter to L.A. Unified, Toxic Substances Control suggested that the school district erect temporary barriers such as fencing, mulch or other ground cover to keep children from interacting with contaminated soil at three schools: Lorena, Rowan and Fishburn.
On one campus, Eastman, the district had already removed contaminated soil from two tree wells.
The state determined that no further action is needed at the fifth school, Huntington Park High School, because its students are older.
Lead is particularly harmful for young children and pregnant women. It is a neurotoxin that can cause learning deficiencies and brain damage.
Based on the state’s recommendations and district environmental staff review, L.A. Unified has taken the following interim measures, according to spokeswoman Elvia Perez:
- At Lorena Street Elementary it set up temporary fencing around the exterior dirt yard on the east side of the campus nearest Lorena Street.
- At Rowan Avenue Elementary it installed temporary fencing around one tree well in the playground and around a planting area near a classroom building. It erected temporary fencing and reseeded a lawn on the west side of the campus.
- At Fishburn Avenue Elementary School it erected temporary fencing and reseeded the front lawn on the east side of the campus.
Exide smelted lead batteries in the area for three decades on a temporary permit before the state shut it down last year. The soil sampling and cleanup area has grown from around 200 homes closest to the plant to a radius of 1.7 miles that could include up to 10,000 homes. In February Gov. Brown earmarked another $176 million for the cleanup.
Twenty-two schools are in the expanded area and they have all been tested, according to Toxic Substances Control. Seventeen were cleared because they did not show lead levels above 80 ppm – the state threshold for residential cleanup. Schools that showed higher levels required additional review.
In 2015 soil tests, Lorena and Fishburn ranged from 144 to 219 parts per million. At Rowan, soil around a tree showed a level of 105 parts per million.
L.A. Unified officials said they acted on their own at Eastman because soil samples there had lead levels ranging from 220 to 688 ppm. The district removed the soil around two trees and replaced it with clean soil last year.
The state typically removes lead from residential yards if it is found at above 80 parts per million. Toxic Substances Control has determined the action level for lead in schools to be 110 parts per million, based on how much time kids spend there, according to letters the agency sent to L.A. Unified.
Community groups and some parents have been pushing the state to remove the contaminated soil from Lorena, Rowan, Fishburn and Huntington Park High. They've expressed dissatisfaction with how long the process has taken, and many say families their schools are not keeping them informed about what is going on.
At Lorena Street Elementary on Tuesday, a man who identified himself as the principal said the school district had not told him the fence was related to lead-contaminated soil or Exide.
The man, who would not identify himself by name, said the fence was installed to protect new grass seeds. The principal at Lorena Street School is Isidoro Franco, according to the school receptionist and Franco’s LinkedIn profile.
District officials have said the administration is keeping the principals at the affected campuses up-to-date on issue related to Exide and soil contamination, so they can share the information with parents and staff.
L.A. Unified says it expects preliminary results from Toxic Substances Control's new soil tests by the end of this week.