He’s the first vice president to have an L.A. school named after him, sharing the honor with author Rachel Carson. Fittingly, the campus will be devoted to environmental themes. But there’s a catch.

By Howard Blume | Los Angeles Times

First-grade teacher Yolanda Alcala, left, and plant manager Gary Cabiness bring in supplies to the new Carson-Gore Academy of Environmental Sciences, scheduled to open Sept. 13. The campus was built atop contaminated land. (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles Times / September 6, 2010)

Construction crews were working at the campus up to the Labor Day weekend, replacing toxic soil with clean fill. All told, workers removed dirt from two 3,800-square-foot plots to a depth of 45 feet, space enough to hold a four-story building. The soil had contained more than a dozen underground storage tanks serving light industrial businesses.

Additional contamination may have come from the underground tanks of an adjacent gas station. A barrier will stretch 45 feet down from ground level to limit future possible fuel leakage.

An oil well operates across the street, but officials said they’ve found no associated risks. Like many local campuses, this school also sits above an oil field, but no oil field-related methane has been detected.

Groundwater about 45 feet below the surface remains contaminated but also poses no risk, officials said.

Because the district imported clean dirt, the school is probably safe at the moment, said Jane Williams, executive director of the Kern County-based California Communities Against Toxics. But she and other critics, including Robina Suwol, who heads the locally based California Safe Schools coalition, worry that the pollution sources have not been adequately identified and that the dirty groundwater could recontaminate the soil.

Everything’s under control after the $4-million cleanup, said John Sterritt, the school system’s chief safety officer.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the site is safe, and if there are any changes, our monitoring or our existing processes will detect it and we’ll react to that,” Sterritt said. “We really go out of our way to make sure these properties are safe.”

Officials contend the district has made huge strides since environmental concerns stalled the Belmont Learning Complex, which has since opened as the Roybal Learning Center. In addition, new schools now fall under the review of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.

In the spring, a school-naming committee received six options, including Pete Seeger Community School. A representative from school board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte suggested that the folk singer’s “affiliation with the Communist Party,” among other factors, made that choice inappropriate, two in attendance recalled.

Three meetings later, the consensus was Carson-Gore.

At last week’s school board meeting, district officials said Gore had never been contacted regarding the naming or the contamination concerns. Board member Nury Martinez speculated that, under the circumstances, Gore might decline the honor.

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