Former Vice President Al Gore Silent After School Bearing His Name Is Built on Toxic Ground

Critics Say Gore should speak up about Los Angeles' Carson-Gore Academy.

Sept. 8, 2010 — -- Critics of a Los Angeles school built on toxic soil are asking former Vice President Al Gore, after whom the school is named, to break his silence and condemn the location of the school before it opens next week.

The school, dubbed the Carson-Gore Academy after Gore and the late environmentalist Rachel Carson, who wrote about the dangers of chemical pesticides, has been under fire since officials discovered contaminated soil in the ground on which it was built. The soil has since been replaced.

But critics wonder why Gore has stayed mum on the environmental hazards they say are still lurking beneath the elementary school.

"It's unconscionable that this is condoned by environmental leaders," said Jane Williams, the executive director of the non-profit environmental group California Communities Against Toxics. "I'd like to hear from Mr. Gore."

"I'd like to hear about what he thinks about sending children to a school that's been built on contaminated soil," Williams said. "Silence is a form of condoning something like that."

Kalee Kreider, Gore's spokeswoman, said the office had no comment.

A representative for Carson's estate was unable to be reached.

Williams and other state environmentalists say the school, listed in public records on the state's Department of Toxic Substances Control website as Central Elementary School #13, has been constructed on too hazardous a plot of land.

"This is far less than an ideal circumstance and there are things you can do to ensure that contaminated soil vapors aren't leaking [into the school]," Williams said.

But everything that can be done has been to ensure that students and their teachers are safe, according to the Los Angeles Unified School District, which oversees the school.

"The school is safe," said John Sterritt, the director of the school district's Office of Environmental Health and Safety. "We have determined that through substantial and comprehensive sampling over time.

"I'd send my kids to that school," he added.

The first sign of trouble came in late 2005, when soil contaminated with substances such as acetone and benzoic acid was found on the site, according to public records.

The toxins, which stem partially from underground tanks left in the ground by the previous landowners, have been dealt with accordingly, said Sterritt, and pose no immediate risk to students or staff at the school.

About $4 million has been spent on redoing the soil near the school, which cost a total of $75.5 million to construct, Sterritt said. According to The Los Angeles Times, construction workers were spotted at the school as recently as last week.

But the critics say that while the toxic soil may no longer be in the school's backyard, long-term effects from the vapors in the ground could still pose a risk.

"[The school district] can pull all the soil out that they like but unless they identify all sources of contamination there is going to be an ongoing issue," said Robina Suwol, the director for the California Safe Schools Coalition, which wrote several letters to the school district detailing the concerns about the school's location after she received complaints from incoming students' parents.

Suwol said her biggest concern is the lack of a precise plan on just how much monitoring will be done, now that the toxic soil has been removed. Without consistent testing, she said, students and faculty members could still be at risk for exposure to the chemicals.

School officials say that testing will be done, but that the timeline of how frequent these tests will be hasn't been established.

"That's something we'll work on with the state, sometimes [monitoring] is done quarterly or bi-annually," Sterritt said.

"But there is no concern on the district side of future, ongoing exposure [to toxins]," he said. "But in an abundance of caution, mainly because we're dealing with students and parents and it's the right thing to do, we'll put on some monitoring."

While the school district facilities spokeswoman Shannon Haber declined to comment on the school's decision to name the school after environmentalists, she did say that the a school's naming is a "community decision" that is "not taken lightly."

But Williams said the district's decision, reached two weeks ago, to use the names of environmentalists like Gore and Carson is the school's way of covering up their mistake in choosing such a contaminated plot of land.

"[The names] they picked for the school are ironic," she said. "It's green-washing -- a term used when you have something that's bad for the environment and you find a way to spin it to make it look like it's actually good for the environment."

"This is a school," Suwol said. "Our Fourteenth Amendment promises equal protection under the law, and I'd certainly like to ensure that [for these students]."