Senate Select Committee on Environmental Justice

Summary Report on the hearing: Brownfields to Schools - How Can the State Facilitate Cleanup to Build Essential Schools?

Held January 14, 2000 in Los Angeles


Environmental injustice occurs where environmental degradations are overconcentrated in low-income and minority communities. Because a disproportionate share of "brownfields" -- vacant or underutilized sites that may be contaminated from prior uses -- are located in low-income and minority communities, cleaning up these sites and promoting their reuse helps alleviate the historical injustices affecting these neighborhoods.

At the same time, California's school-aged population continues to surge. School districts around the state face a dire need to construct new facilities to meet the demand for classroom space. However, in many communities, especially older urban areas comprised of low-income and minority neighborhoods, there are very few parcels of available land large enough to accommodate a school. As a result, a district must choose between demolishing existing homes and businesses or looking to brownfields.

Cleaning up brownfields for use as schools can bring a double benefit by both removing an eyesore and potential source of exposure to the community and providing the needed classroom space. The purpose of this hearing was to provide members of the committee with a common understanding of the current regulations and funding sources related to brownfield cleanup for use as school sites and to solicit and hear discussion of various proposals that would allow the state, where necessary, to facilitate the assessment and cleanup of contaminated sites to create safe schools.

Brief Synopsis of Speakers' Remarks


I. Lettie Boggs, Anaheim Unified School District and California's Coalition for Adequate School Housing

Ms. Boggs testified that school districts often need to consider new school sites with potential contamination because there are no other options in their communities. Schools need to be near the communities they serve and transportation facilities. Many urban areas, however, are built out, meaning that building a school on obviously clean land may require the removal of homes and businesses which can carry a high economic and political cost. While land is more readily available in rural areas, otherwise ideal sites may be contaminated with pesticides or other toxics. Even when cleanup costs are factored into the equation, a district may find that the benefits of a contaminated site make it a superior choice to the alternatives.

Ms. Boggs said that the challenge to school districts to cleanup and reuse brownfield sites is increasing. The project must fulfill the needs of the new school and the local community as well as comply with the criteria set out by the California Department of Education (CDE), the Department or Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Funding for new school construction is not available until the need is imminent which puts a high premium on the ability to quickly turn around a project. Lastly, districts must bear the full cost of cleanup for any portion that exceeds the final appraised value of the property. The cost and delays of the current assessment and cleanup process heavily constrain a district's ability to use brownfields as school sites.

In response to Senator Alarcón's question as to how the Anaheim Unified School District works with the community on a proposed school site, Ms. Boggs responded that the district first consults city staff for suggestions as to which sites may be available, then consults the appropriate neighborhood council for input. Anaheim USD has developed long-term relationships with councils throughout the city. With the input of the city and the neighborhood in mind, the district begins the formal selection process which includes an environmental review, and the required opportunities for public comment.

II. Bill Panos, Los Angeles Unified School District, Environmental Health and Safety Branch

Mr. Panos testified that the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) needs to add at least 150 new schools over the next few years. Even these will not be enough to completely reduce overcrowding in the district. The District is currently in the process of rebuilding its site selection process, its relationships with the community, and its communications process. These are part of the long road of reform.

Mr. Panos stated that the district's site selection process has previously lacked due diligence. Furthermore, the money available for school construction and environmental management does not meet the need, and there is a lack of objective agency standards for determining whether a potential site is safe for children and staff. Compounding these difficulties is the fact the district has over 150 projects under environmental review and a lack of staff to handle the volume in the most timely manner.

In spite of these difficulties, the district is fully committed to building all needed schools in needed areas and has put in place new staff, communications and information processing systems to proceed as quickly as possible. The Environmental Health and Safety Branch can now list the site history of a specific property in 30 minutes and complete a preliminary assessment in 48 hours. The district is formalizing a process with state agencies such as DTSC to move environmental reviews more quickly. The bottom line is that the district now has the ability to screen sites up front and know the cleanup costs and schedules required.

The cumulative costs of these environmental health assessments are large and the District needs help. The District's current experience is that Preliminary Endangerment Assessments (PEAs) range from $100,000-$200,000 if nothing is found. Phase I assessments cost $5000, and each initial review costs $120. Mr. Panos also said that the State needs to set objective cleanup/health standards for school sites that are flexible enough to deal with varying environmental conditions and that are generally accepted.

Ms. Wendy Umino, staff to Senator Martha Escutia, asked where the district intends to find the land for the primary centers that have been proposed. Mr. Panos replied that small tracts are more readily available than large tracts, that the district owns much land that can be converted to schools, and that existing school sites can be expanded.

Senator Alarcón requested a tally of the district's overall financial need for environmental assessments and cleanups which Mr. Panos promised to provide. Senator Alarcón stressed that he wants to district to do a better job involving communities in site selections and demanded that the district quickly adopt a site selection policy that has been pending since May, 1999. The Senator also requested specific recommendations as to what cleanup standards the State should set. Mr. Panos closed by stating that schools can provide the anchor for the redevelopment of brownfields if the remediation is planned from the beginning.

III. Barbara Coler, Department of Toxic Substances Control

Ms. Coler laid out the process by which a new school site must be evaluated for environmental concerns under the newly enacted legislation (SB 162 and AB 387). In addition, she stressed that the new authority allows the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) to stop a project for environmental reasons.

In order to access Proposition 1A funds, a Phase I environmental assessment must be conducted for each and every prospective school site in the state. A Phase I review consists of a "paper study" which details the historical uses of the property and indicates any potential for contamination. DTSC reviews this assessment and makes one of the following findings: 1) that no further action is required; or 2) that concerns about contamination exist and the district must conduct a Preliminary Endangerment Assessment (PEA). In response to Senator Alarcon's inquiry as to how DTSC knows the information in a Phase I assessment is accurate, Ms. Coler responded that DTSC staff fully review the documents, look for gaps in the information provided and frequently conduct site visits to provide confirmation.

The PEA entails site sampling and the development of a detailed risk assessment of any contaminants present on the proposed school property. The calculated risks of any contaminants are weighed against the risk ranges that are outlined in the National Contingency Plan (the regulations for the Federal Superfund law) and considered appropriate for residential uses (the most conservative approach). There are no risk ranges designed specifically for school sites. It is not necessary for a property to have zero level of risk, but rather that the risks be within acceptable levels. For example, cancer risks are generally such that less than 1 person in 1 million would develop cancer from normal exposure. DTSC reviews this more detailed assessment and makes one of three determinations:

  • No further action is required;

  • The project may proceed straight to cleanup. This determination is possible for sites with relatively uncomplicated cleanup needs. A Removal Action Work Plan (RAW) is prepared and once approved by DTSC after a 30 day public comment period, the district can then undertake the cleanup work. The whole process generally takes 6-12 months.

  • The project must go through the formal cleanup process, which includes the following steps: 1) a remedial investigation; 2) a feasibility study; 3) a full-blown risk assessment; 4) a Remedial Action Plan with public comment; and 5) engineering design and cleanup implementation.

Public participation and involvement activities are conducted as part of the PEA and are more extensive for sites that undergo the RAW or full formal cleanup process.

IV. Mr. David Zian, State Allocation Board

Mr. Zian spoke to the issue of what assessment and cleanup costs school districts may receive reimbursement for from the State Allocation Board (SAB). Prior to the passage of SB 162 and AB 387 in 1999, the SAB funded toxic cleanup costs if they were included with the actual purchase cost and did not exceed the appraised value of the site, but it was very difficult for school districts to access these funds when they were financial hardship districts. Districts in financial hardship could not even afford the costs of site surveys, testing, and environmental assessment, which are all necessary to secure California Department of Education and SAB approval for a property.

As a result of the legislation, the SAB has proposed a new policy. Once formally approved by the Board, the SAB will generally share in 50% of the costs of site assessment and remediation. If a district meets the definition of being in a financial hardship, the Board can fund up to 100% of the assessment and cleanup costs. In both cases, reimbursement for cleanup costs cannot be provided for any amount that exceeds the differential between the district's purchase price for the property and the appraised value of the property after the cleanup is completed. Under questioning, Mr. Zian mentioned that it appears LAUSD may have paid full market value for some toxic school sites up front, rather than deducting these toxic remediation costs from the appraisal value. This means the district could be ineligible to have any cleanup costs reimbursed on these properties.

Senators Solis and Alarcón expressed a need for more flexibility to reimburse school districts for cleanup costs that may exceed the final appraised value in the event where no feasible alternative sites exist. Senator Alarcón also stated that districts need an opportunity to request additional funding from the SAB if cleanup costs end up being higher than that originally allocated by the board. Given the complexities of toxic remediation, costs may often exceed initial estimates. Mr. Zian stated that under current law and regulation this opportunity does not exist and is not provided for.


V. Jennifer Hernandez, California Center for Land Recycling

Ms. Hernandez raised the issue that the inability to cleanup brownfields has a disproportionate impact on minority communities. If "pristine" is the standard to be reached, brownfields, especially those in poor neighborhoods where the economic incentive is less strong, will remain blights on the community.

Ms. Hernandez testified that how clean is clean is currently determined site by site based on generally-understood but informal guidelines, derived from scientific studies based primarily on evaluating how mice and rats react to large doses of chemicals. As a practical matter, this process has resulted in numerous successful brownfields reuse projects - but it falls apart when a project becomes engulfed in political controversy. When this happens, and the debate turns to concerns about how clean the site needs to be, these informal standards are ignored and the whole project can be brought to a halt. Because school sites are always in the spotlight, the standards applied to the cleanup of a brownfield for a school site are always questioned.

Cities, schools, and non-profit developers seem unable to get through the site remediation process. Informal guidelines that disappear in the face of controversy don't work, and the process of getting to these standards is simply not accessible or "transparent" enough for interested parties who are not experts in the environmental remediation fields to have confidence in the regulatory process. Ms. Hernandez argued that it is time for open adoption of numerical, risk-based cleanup standards for soils, such as those that have been adopted in 27 states.

These standards, as applied to schools, could then vary based on the configuration of the property. A higher standard could apply to fields and landscaping than to portions of the property that are sealed over. Having a debate over standards is only useful, however, if something less than a "pristine cleanup standard to bedrock levels" can be successful. Otherwise, projects will be shut down, the dirt removal will be massive, and communities in areas of Los Angeles and elsewhere that are located over natural formations such as oil and gas production areas - which have safely existed for a century or longer - will never have a new school.

VI. Tom Soto, LAUSD Environmental Safety Team

Mr. Soto testified that the creation of presumptive standards for the cleanup of school sites will surely be a key issue top be dealt with over the next few years. He added that LAUSD's district-wide policy on environmental justice will also help move the brownfields issue forward. Environmental standards that are set will be used to determine school sites. The cooperative relationship with DTSC that the district has developed through the Voluntary Cleanup Approach at three sites will mature.

Mr. Soto stated that dealing with this issue really comes down to funding. An interagency approach is needed that identifies funds at the federal level and directs them to state and local agencies that prioritize sites. The single largest thing that needs to happen, however, is a collective understanding that identifying funding, determining who is responsible for cleanup, and applying standards to a particular site are vital to the task of turning brownfields into an economic and social benefit for the community. There needs to be an understanding on the part of LAUSD that there is some economic incentive to invest in this area, and more leadership is needed to steer the district in the right direction.

Mr. Soto went on to clarify that the LAUSD has not in fact formally adopted a community involvement process for their site selection efforts. Instead, there has been direction from the COO to develop a community engagement program, but it has yet to take effect at this time.

Senator Alarcón raised the issue that too many studies are being done and not enough schools are being produced. Before conducting detailed studies of every possible site, he argued, the district should be considering environmental and political factors, including taking community input into account. Senator Alarcón stated that he wants the district to have a community involvement process for site selections in place immediately, because working with the community is key to successful school site selection.

VII. Connie Rice, English, Munger and Rice

Ms. Rice raised three issues to be address if we are to successfully use brownfields for schools: 1) the need for cleanup standards based on the health needs of children, not animals or adults; 2) the need for cleanup funding; and 3) the need to reverse the State Allocation's Board disbursement of school construction funds based on the date of request rather than need.

Ms. Rice testified that the funds that have been allocated to date to this problem are simply inadequate. She stated that future bond measures will be needed to make headway. Achieving such funding will require that the community be educated on the scope of the need.

With regard to existing funds, Ms. Rice stated that resources must be allocated to facilitate the participation of neighborhood groups in the cleanup process so they have a voice. In addition, the SAB's policies for distributing Proposition 1A funds must be reversed. The voters approved the bond with the understanding that funds would be allocated based on need. Instead, the SAB uses deadlines that effectively reward speed over need. Those districts who get their applications for funding in first get access. For districts that have to deal with brownfield issues, it is almost impossible to compete on speed. While the enacting legislation for the bond contains some minor problems, this issue could be addressed through the SAB's procedures. Pressure is needed to assure the SAB allocates funds based on need. Ms. Rice argued that funding should be allocated based on the eligibility assessments which LAUSD has already submitted.

VIII. David Beckman, Natural Resources Defense Council

Mr. Beckman focused on three things that would immediately facilitate the use of brownfields for schools.

  • Existing cleanup standards may be imperfect but have been well thought out and in place for a long time. Before we rush to criticize these standards, we need to identify what is wrong. A major problem is that implementation has been decimated by budget cuts. Flaws in the standards are distorted by imploded DTSC infrastructure. Providing for adequate staff levels at DTSC will greatly improve the existing system and greatly increase the safety of schools and how quickly they can be built.

  • The state should direct schools to categorize brownfields. If the desire is to build quickly, we should focus our energies and resources on sites that have less troublesome histories, such as old warehouses rather than chrome-plating facilities.

  • The Legislature should revisit SB 993(Hayden) which marries many of the concepts heard in this hearing. The bill leans towards the establishment of look-up standards for schools and requires that they be based on children's health needs rather than the needs of adults. Research has shown that the timing of the dose is equally, if not more important, than the amount of the dose. A bill that marries these two concepts seems to offer the broadest spectrum of stakeholders something.

In response to Senator's Alarcón's concern that the state of research on health effects on children may not yet be adequately advanced, Mr. Beckman said that a fair amount of child-specific information is available already that can be built in to standards. In addition, he argued that the state should take a lead in promoting this research to fill in any gaps. Senator Alarcón cautioned that we need to be careful of getting ahead of the science.

IX. John Gamboa, Greenlining Institute

In negotiating Community Reinvestment Act commitments with banks, the Greenlining Institute has sought to make financing available for the redevelopment of brownfields. While many banks have committed to making such loans, the funds have not been adequately used due to the underlying uncertainty over future liability. Another problem Greenling has encountered is that community residents have been left out of the whole brownfields debate. As a result, Greenlining is organizing more than 200 organizations in the Los Angeles area in the Brownfields Coalition.

Mr. Gamboa stated that the community has substantial knowledge about the brownfields in their community, but a lack of confidence. The process has no place of resident stakeholders. The solution he proposes is twofold: 1) Provide residents with access to good, reliable information from panel of scientific advisors so a community does not have to rely on the advice of potentially biased experts from the development or environmental community; and 2) Develop stringent minimal cleanup standards that community residents can easily look to and understand.

X. Greg Trimarche, State Bar Environmental Law Executive Committee

Mr. Trimarche said that he had heard three problems during the course of the hearing: 1) making sure that funds are properly allocated to needy schools; 2) setting appropriate cleanup standards for contaminated sites; and 3) ensuring adequate initial screening of brownfield sites to ensure resources are not wasted pursuing studies when a site is not likely to ever pan out.

With regard to the first two problems, Mr. Trimarche believes existing structures can address these issues. He believes that the third issue is the most pressing and that we do not necessarily have the right people in place to solve it. He stated that a better process is needed to quickly screen and evaluate brownfield sites for potential redevelopment. It is not cost effective to do PEAs on 150 sites if only 10 are likely to be used. Instead, a huge body of expertise in this area exists out there in the private community. School districts may not be the right organizations to charge with the daunting task of performing the screening function. Mr. Trimarche proposed the establishment of an entity to help school districts to do initial screening and determine if it makes sense to go forward with more detailed assessments.

XI. Paul Hernandez, New Schools Better Neighborhoods

LAUSD faces a crisis that whose solution seems remote: the need to build more than 100 new schools. In addressing this crisis, achieving flexibility with respect to the Proposition 1A application deadlines is of critical importance. The environmental standards need to be defined in a way that all of us can understand them. It is also clear that the community has been left out of the process of school selection in Los Angeles, ultimately leading to greater delays and costs. NSBN has been advocating more effective community participation within LAUSD. NSBN has run a demonstration model for community involvement in the Wilshire Corridor area, which participants have commended. Mr. Hernandez suggested LAUSD adopt a community engagement process that will allow community members to become intimately involved in the siting, design, planning, and construction of new school facilities. He argued that the state needs to put pressure on LAUSD ensure community involvement becomes a reality. Unless the community is involved, we are not going to make progress on building schools in Los Angeles.

XII. Robert Garcia, Environmental Defense Fund

Mr. Garcia focused much of his remarks on an example that raises many of the themes that had been raised by the hearing. He is working to have the 47-acre Chinatown Cornfields brownfield site for a green and clean school and park, rather than for warehouses like those being proposed by Majestic Realty. Mr. Garcia argued that joint use for a school and park would meet the real needs of the community. There are no middle schools, high schools or parks in Chinatown. In addition, if warehouses were built, the Mead low-income housing project would be hemmed in between the warehouses and the men's jail. While the school district is interested in the site, the possible presence of contaminants, the lack of cleanup standards, and the uncertain cost of cleanup are significant issues that must be resolved. Majestic Realty has requested federal funds to make the deal profitable. These dollars could potentially be used to clean the property for a green and clean school and park.

Mr. Garcia proposed an environmental justice framework whose goals would be 1) to have equitable, environmentally sound and economically vital schools and parks; 2) to have information available to assess the impact on all communities, including (a) a readily available list of sites that could be considered for schools and parks and (b) standards defining how clean is clean enough for schools and parks; 3) the equitable participation of all communities in the decision making process; and 4) the construction of schools and parks in a way that results in neither intentional discrimination nor discriminatory impacts.

Closing Remarks

Senator Alarcón said there seems to be consensus about better involving the community is the site selection process. He would like to continue the discussions regarding additional funding for DTSC to more quickly review environmental assessments and even help with initial site reviews; look at how Prop 1A funds are being allocated and ensure that need is indeed the primary basis for awarding funds; unify our efforts in seeking federal assistance for the cleanup of brownfields; and create a process for establishing clear cleanup standards.

Senator Escutia's staff reminded participants that the Senator has pending legislation, SB 324, which crafts solutions to many of the issues raised, including the provision of environmental restoration tools for local governments, limits on future liability, and property screening guidelines. The Senator invites all interested parties to work closely together on this legislation.

Committee Recommendations

Community Involvement

Experience has shown that effectively involving the community in all aspects of decision making on new school sites, especially those where contamination issues are at play, is vital to success. Neighbors and parents who are not consulted may oppose a project, often resulting in the project being delayed or abandoned. Moreover, parents who are not comfortable with the cleanup of a contaminated property may refuse to send their children to the new school. All school districts need to develop and implement community involvement strategies that allow community members to become intimately involved in the siting, design, planning, and construction of new school facilities.

Cleanup Standards

The current process of establishing cleanup standards for a specific property suffers from a lack of clarity and certainty. This in turn results in the waste of time and resources in the pursuit of infeasible projects and makes it difficult for members of the community to actively participate in decisions related to the standards. The development of clear "look-up standards" for all brownfield cleanups, including a standard specific to schools, is needed. Over time, as the research on the special susceptibility of children to toxics advances, this information should be incorporated into the standards.


The ability of school districts to convert brownfields into safe schoolsites is hampered by a lack of available financial resources at various levels. Even with the state funding 50% of the assessment and cleanup costs, many districts have insufficient funds to tackle complex restorations of a property. In addition, the establishment of a cap on state funding at the appraised value of a clean property negatively impacts lower-income neighborhoods where property values are inevitably lower. Adding to these difficulties is the fact that DTSC has insufficient staff to review assessments and oversee cleanups and schools must pay for these services.

The approaches that were offered all generally emanate from the idea that although school districts need access to brownfields, they should not be the ones to bear the societal costs of cleaning these properties. Both the state and federal government have an interest in seeing blighted properties restored to a productive use beneficial to the community. The ideas to financially facilitate the cleanup of brownfields for schools included:

  • Seeking additional federal funds for cleanup costs and clarifying that these resources can be used for school sites.

  • Using state General Fund dollars to cover the costs of DTSC's review of environmental assessments and oversight of cleanups.

  • Revising the cap on state reimbursement of school assessment and cleanup costs to allow for cases where feasible alternative school sites do not exist and to rectify the inequality of funding between high-property value and low-property value sites.

  • Allowing school districts to go back to the State Allocation Board for additional cleanup funds if original cost estimates prove to be insufficient.

  • Hiring additional staff at DTSC to provide a more timely review of environmental assessments.

Screening Entity

School districts are meant to be experts in education, not environmental assessment. It may be helpful to establish an entity that taps existing expertise to provide school districts with quick initial reviews of properties for environmental contamination and help them categorize brownfields so that energies and resources are focused on sites that have less troublesome histories.