Black Gold at Beverly Hills High


LOS ANGELES, May 10, 2006 — -- Beverly Hills High School may be best known for its famous alumni, its film and television appearances and its affluent students. But one thing it isn't known for -- even by some of the students -- is the oil well towering 150 feet over the sprawling campus.

"We don't really pay attention to it," 15-year-old Beverly Hills High School student Kyle Motauasselan said.

"We don't notice it," agreed fellow student Mitchell Rose, 14.

"It doesn't mean anything to me -- it's just there," said Molly Sauer, another 14-year-old.

With hit television shows like "Beverly Hills 90210" and movies such as "Clueless" portraying the students as spoiled, shallow teens who only worry about their next purchase, the perception of Beverly Hills teens around the country probably isn't favorable. But with oil literally looming over the campus, students at Beverly Hills High School are well aware of the oil crisis hanging over the country and the environmental issues affecting the world.

"I think that a lot of people in my class are being taught about the environment and are becoming more aware," student and editor of the Beverly Underground Newspaper, Erich Sorger said.

"People need to drive big cars less," Rose said. "I think we should start driving hybrids -- they are better for the environment because they aren't emitting fumes as much and cut down on gas use."

"We are not rich -- we live in an apartment -- so gas prices affect how much we drive," 15-year-old student Gabriella Giorgio said. "It hasn't gotten to the point where we won't drive at all, but it will if the prices continue to go up. It's just ridiculous."

"I don't think anyone's rich enough to afford the gas prices," Sorger said. "I think everyone's trying to minimize driving. There are different types of students -- some have mothers driving Hummers or SUVs -- but I've seen a lot of Honda hybrids and smaller cars, too."

Los Angeles County covers 4,752 square miles and, according to Dave Sotero, spokesman for the Los Angeles Mass Transit Authority, 29 million trips are made in Los Angeles County daily.

"We count them as 'person trips' -- so if you have three people in a car, that would count as three trips," said Sotero. "But most people don't carpool. Even a small increase in carpooling would have a substantial impact on traffic conditions."

Now that gas prices in Southern California have skyrocketed to more than $3 per gallon for even the lowest grade, concerns are growing, even for those too young to drive.

"It's getting harder and harder, because we can't drive as much because of the prices," Rose said.

"I'm pretty upset about it -- I'm going to start driving soon and I'm going to have to get a job -- but now all the money will just go to gas," Giorgio said.

On the streets of Beverly Hills, lined with vast homes, neatly manicured lawns and expensive boutiques oozing with sophistication, an oil well seems out of place.

But in 2000, the structure received an oil derrick's version of a face-lift: hand-painted, teal-colored tiles now adorn each side of the structure, from top to bottom, making it more art than eyesore.

"The unique aspect of it is that alumni put the project together," Beverly Hills High School principal Dan Stepenosky said. "They went to the hospitals and had terminally ill children paint the panels. A lot of our students went with them and contributed to this project."

The project, known as Tower of Hope, consisted of more than 3,000 children from local area hospitals who contributed to the painting of each panel. Each side of the tower represents one of the four seasons.

The oil tower at Beverly Hills High is owned and operated by Venoco Inc., located in Carpinteria, Calif. According to the company spokesman, Mike Edwards, the oil wells were already in place when the school opened in 1928.

"The L.A. basin is one of the richest oil basins in the world," Edwards said. "Probably 30,000 wells were drilled since 1900. Today, about 5,000 still exist and about half of those are in production."

The location at Beverly Hills High School is one of those still in production, pumping out 400 to 500 barrels each day. Beverly Hills High School is not the only school housing an oil well.

"Oil wells are all over the place in LA," Stepenosky said. "The whole western Los Angeles area is covered. Huntington Beach schools have oil wells real close -- I think Bakersfield, Central Valley, and my understanding is that many schools in Texas have oil wells as well."

The campus, nestled in a quiet residential neighborhood, is located in the heart of Beverly Hills, just blocks from Rodeo Drive. Past students include Angelina Jolie, Rob Reiner, Alicia Silverstone, David Schwimmer and Nicolas Cage. But if you expected to find a parking lot full of flashy, gas-guzzling cars and SUVs, you'd be disappointed.

"You have to walk our hallways -- we are nothing like anyone expects," Stepenosky said. "A lot of residents send their kids here, because they want their kids to experience the diversity. We want our kids prepared for the real world."

According to Steponosky, 30 percent of Beverly Hills High students are foreign born and 39 different languages are spoken in hallways and classrooms.

"The stereotype is that it's a great school, they're rich kids, they have everything," Sorger said. "But it's the stereotype ... the reality is that it's an OK school, just like every other public school, but in a really good neighborhood."

And a part of what makes the school so affluent is the oil tower that casts a shadow over the football field. The school receives royalties from the well that go directly to the general fund.

"We get about $300,000 a year that goes into the general fund, which supports student programs," Stepenosky said. "About 85 percent of the teachers' salaries comes from the general fund as well."

Though the students may benefit from the funds, there has been some controversy about the health risks.

In 2003, unemployed-mother turned famed-attorney Erin Brockovich filed a lawsuit against Beverly Hills School District on behalf of several former students, alleging gases such as benzene caused them to suffer high rates of cancer.

Some students at the school feel the oil well isn't a source of concern.

"I've heard what happened but it doesn't frighten me," Sauer said.

"I didn't even know there was an oil well," 14-year-old student Francesca Cappuccio said. "But it doesn't matter. I don't think it has an effect."

But others say their health is compromised by the proximity of the derrick.

"You have a known thing on campus that is hurting you and no one is doing anything about it," Sorger said. "Even the last two years, there have been spills on the field and no one knows about it unless you are looking into the issues."

No agreement has been made in the case yet and representatives from Venoco said they were unable to discuss the matter.

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