El Puente Community School principal Cecilia Molina and teacher Daniel Umana stand in the school's computer lab. They deny claims that El Puente is toxic.
Paul Wellman

On downtown’s busy Gutierrez Street, in the middle of an industrial zone, sits a school that, by design, is easy to miss.

Unlike most public schools, El Puente Community School has no grand entrance announcing its presence at 430 East Gutierrez Street, across the street from Ace Hardware. With its dull-ivory fa§ade and dirty awnings, the building looks more like a gas company than a school.

El Puente offers classes to about 140 students, most of them expelled from traditional high schools or middle schools on the South Coast for fighting, coming to school with drugs or weapons, gang involvement, or cutting class. Despite its drab outward appearance, the school boasts a relatively new interior, along with a reputation for getting kids back on track. But while El Puente gets an “A” for academics and classroom upkeep, the jury’s out on its record for environmental safety.

Within a month, toxicology experts will begin investigating the possibility that the school is contaminated.

Elizabeth Sorgman, seen here during her 2004 bid for the Santa Barbara School Board, says she's the only one standing up for the endangered students.
Paul Wellman

One thing is certain: The groundwater beneath some of its neighbors harbors a “toxic plume” of chemicals that decades ago seeped out of corroded underground storage tanks containing waste oil. The tanks have been removed, but the plume remains. The question now is whether it is poisoning the school’s air. The investigation was prompted by an inquiry more than a year ago from a local citizen-Elizabeth Sorgman, a frequent thorn in the side of area school officials. Ultimately, the case asks: Is the county school district wasting taxpayer dollars on a superfluous study to quiet the accusations of a single agitator, or did it err back in 2000 by placing a school in the middle of a polluted industrial zone?

Sorgman believes the County Education Office acted irresponsibly. To her, the placement is yet another example of how poor, mostly Latino families are getting shortchanged by the system. “I just don’t think it’s fair,” she said. “These families don’t have anybody to stand up for them.” The school’s principal, Cecilia Molina, believes the county district is under attack by Sorgman, who has a reputation for leveling trumped-up charges against area school officials. (Sorgman and another parent once unsuccessfully sued the Santa Barbara School Board because they believed it was holding illegal secret meetings.) “Honestly, when I found out who the source was, it kind of saddened me,” Molina said. “The person who made the complaint has never been on the school site-not once.” But, Molina added, “If there needs to be more done, we will do it right away. : Safety is our number one concern.”

Meanwhile, state experts assure that if the air inside the school contains any toxins, the exposure levels are too low to pose an immediate threat to students. However, they also note that the toxicity could be a long-term health risk, a statement that one could interpret to mean the experts are more concerned about the teachers than the students. “There’s not a reason to evacuate,” said Bill Bosan, a toxicologist with the Human and Ecological Risk Division of the Department of Toxic Substances Control. “The [potential] risk is more for students who are at the site for four or five years, and definitely for teachers who might be there for 10, 20, or 30 years.” (Bosan said he based his preliminary assessment on a mathematical formula involving the level of toxins in the ground and their distance from the school.)

School officials reject the notion that the safety of the students or teachers has in any way been compromised. County schools Superintendent Bill Cirone said the building received a clean bill of health from toxicologists before the district moved students to the campus in 2000. “It was only after we completed that study that we signed the lease,” he said.

Water Board: ‘What School?’

In the early 1990s, a few years before El Puente moved to its current site, high levels of dangerous chemicals were found in the shallow groundwater on properties that once housed electronics companies and a diesel truck repair business. Now, years after the cleanup, the soil is still contaminated. Until recently, the state agency supervising the cleanup-the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board-was unaware of the school’s presence, said Thea Tryon, a geologist with the agency. In 2005, the agency was informed of it by Sorgman.

The process was slow and bureaucratic, but the Water Quality Control Board acted on her inquiry. In November 2006, officials there contacted the Department of Toxic Substances Control, the state agency in charge of monitoring the levels of pollution near schools. Now, state officials say, it could be about four months before they issue final word on whether the tainted groundwater at properties adjacent to El Puente poses a danger to teachers and students. Among the discovered toxins in the area is vinyl chloride, inhalation of which can cause dizziness, nausea, and heart problems and has been linked to a rare form of liver cancer. Bosan noted, however, that people who have contracted cancer from vinyl chloride experienced levels at least 1,000 times greater than what could be seeping into the air on Olive Street, where toxin levels are highest.

But despite the scary list of symptoms, school officials say El Puente has never received a health complaint from a student at the current location, save one recent exception: In late June, attorney Karolyn Renard represented a student who said he was sneezing too much and feeling stuffy. (Renard, who considers herself an advocate for underserved students, is, like Sorgman, a regular critic of area school officials.) The contention that the student was suffering possible effects from the neighboring toxic plume was ancillary to Renard’s case-and part of a successful effort to get the student home schooled.

Though school officials are skeptical of the claim, it nonetheless prompted them to launch their own investigation. They hired the local environmental consulting firm Dudek & Associates to conduct a study that will happen alongside the one being overseen by the state, according to state officials. (Neither study has begun, but the multiple parties have begun holding meetings at the school.) “If someone is alleging it’s an unsafe place, you have to do what you can to ensure that it is [safe],” said Wendy Shelton, communications director for the Santa Barbara County Office of Education. “It would be irresponsible not to follow up.”

The Chemicals

State officials believe some of the pollution came from two underground storage tanks found within 60 feet of the school. However, in a troubling statement, officials with Toxic Substances said the source of the worst zone of contamination-on Olive Street between Gutierrez and Montecito streets-remains unknown. Here, the levels of vinyl chloride are striking. The state considers an acceptable level of vinyl chloride to be 0.5 micrograms per liter in drinking water. In March-the last time the Water Quality officials conducted tests-the levels found in the shallow groundwater at this spot dwarfed that amount, registering at 170.

State officials qualified the alarming statistic somewhat by pointing out that because shallow groundwater is not used for drinking water, the 0.5 standard is a relatively tough one to meet. Nonetheless, Bosan said a residence built on the parking lot there would post an “unacceptable long-term risk.”

Still-despite the lower levels, and even though the groundwater toxins in that area are half a block away from the school-it’s possible for them to cause harm. Any toxins within the groundwater can seep through the soil and blend with the air people breathe, state officials said. (On a positive note, the state officials believe the “river” flowing through this particular trouble zone is moving away from the school.)

As for the now-removed oil tanks, the use of one formerly located at 411 East Montecito Street dates back to the 1940s, when the property was home to a diesel truck repair business, according to Water Quality documents. Officials believe the tank contained waste oil. During its excavation in 1992, crews noted that the tank was badly corroded and reported seeing black liquid floating on the groundwater. The other underground tank-found at 436 East Gutierrez Street-held 500 gallons and was removed in 1995.

In addition to vinyl chloride, toxicologists have discovered another chemical in the area’s soil called 1,1-Dichloroethane. In the past, this chemical was used as a surgical anesthetic until researchers discovered that it can cause heart defects. Now it is used for making other chemicals, dissolving substances like paint and varnish, and removing grease. The experts found 33 micrograms per liter of 1,1-Dichloroethane-well surpassing the state’s acceptable level of 5.

Despite the sobering findings, school officials say the students are safe, pointing to the testing they did just before the students moved in. The report, from a district-hired environmental consultant, concluded the levels of the chemicals detected in the air in the hallways were “1,000 to 100,000 times below” the amounts considered dangerous by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Joan Esposito, another area advocate for disadvantaged students who frequently butts heads with school officials, is unimpressed. “I don’t care if it’s a minute bit of toxin, they shouldn’t be anywhere near it,” she said. “I don’t think Cirone or any of those boardmembers would put their own children in there.”

Several years ago, Esposito, who founded the S.B.-based Dyslexia Awareness and Resource Center, publicly alleged that El Puente’s prior building was rat-infested. She insisted it is the reason El Puente moved to its current site in the first place.

Cirone denies this, saying El Puente moved because the business that had owned the property-Magellan’s Travel Supplies-decided to expand, thus squeezing out the school. “All of our sites are very clean, very tidy, very neat,” he said, adding, “I suppose you could have a mouse or a rat anywhere, Montecito included.”

Who’s Responsible?

Even though the state is supervising the testing, it won’t be doing much of the actual digging; most of that work will be done by consultants. Some of the work will be paid for by the county school district, meaning taxpayers. But some of the cost will also be borne by the responsible party: an electronics manufacturer named Pacific Scientific. (Neither school nor state officials would venture a guess on how much the studies will cost.)

Pacific Scientific, whose electro-kinetics division was located at 411 East Montecito Street until 1999, is now under the umbrella of the Danaher Corporation of Washington, D.C. Although the company did not know about the tanks before they were discovered, according to Water Quality Control documents, it must pay for the study because it was leasing the space at the time of their discovery. Jeanne Garcia, spokeswoman for the Department of Toxic Substances Control, credited the company for being cooperative so far. A Danaher spokesperson did not return calls as of press time. But it seems Danaher actually may have been too cooperative. So far, the owner of the property-Laguna Industrial Partners -has escaped any scrutiny. Normally, both the property owner and tenant of a contaminated site are responsible for its investigation and cleanup, said Tryon of Water Quality Control. “Danaher has voluntarily conducted the work to date,” she wrote in an email. “Therefore, we have not pursued bringing other responsible parties into this cleanup.”

Ultimately, the question remains: When the school began preparing to move in 1999, why wasn’t it inspected by a state agency? In short, the Department of Toxic Substances Control’s school division didn’t exist until January 2000, months after El Puente had decided to move. Still, Sorgman, Renard, and Esposito believe the school should have been monitored by some independent third party long before now. They note that the county school district spent $500,000 remodeling the building in 2000.

“They should have submitted plans to the state architect-no agency has ever reviewed what they did in terms of architectural plans,” said Sorgman, who works as an architect. “Would you want your child there? Would you be willing to gamble on your kid’s safety? I wouldn’t.”


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