SUVA Schools Playing Safe
It started with a telephone call in July 1998. The California Environmental Protection Agency asked the Department of Toxic Substances Control to check out potential toxic exposures at the Suva Elementary and Intermediate School in the city of Bell Gardens in Los Angeles.
Two well-organized citizen groups, Suva La Causa and Communities for a Better Environment, had expressed concerns about potential student and staff exposure to hexavalent chromium emissions from nearby chrome-plating facilities, Chrome Crankshaft and J&S Chrome Plating. The groups suspected that chromium (a known human carcinogen) from the plants had caused numerous health problems for children, teachers and residents of the economically-deprived Bell Gardens neighborhood.
A day after receiving the phone call, Hamid Saebfar, then DTSC’s Chief of Site Mitigation Cleanup Operations, visited the school complex. Immediately, he noticed an odd smell. He saw four large Chrome Crankshaft smokestacks next to the playground at Suva Elementary School. That meant emissions from the plant could blow into areas where children played. Only the width of a chain-link fence separated parts of the playground from the plating facility. Next to the school also stood J&S Chrome Plating, which had closed in 1991.
“I remember being concerned that the children may be exposed to toxins,” said Saebfar. “The position of the smokestacks worried me and I suspected that the kids’ health may be at risk.”
In September 1998, DTSC started an environmental investigation. It collected soil samples from the school’s play areas, classrooms and vacuum cleaner dust bags. Ambient air sampling was done in the elementary school yard. Soil samples were also taken in the yards of nearby homes.
Test results identified three areas of the school with low levels of hexavalent chromium. The school district removed the contaminated soil and replaced it with clean soil.
After a subsequent DTSC investigation into the source of the contamination, Chrome Crankshaft closed its operation in 1999. Later, it filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. In 2008, a decade after that original Cal/EPA phone call,DTSC completed the soil cleanup at the former plating facility. The work continues to this day. A shallow groundwater treatment system is preventing dangerous hexavalent chromium and volatile organic compounds from entering the local drinking water supply.
Today and for generations to come, children at Suva School can enjoy a safe place to learn thanks to community action and DTSC’s response.