September 13, 2008
Lead Removed, but Questions Remain
By Kristin S. Agostoni
Before school started last week at Towers Elementary in Torrance, a crew hired by the city of Redondo Beach convened for a campus cleanup.
With sweepers, vacuums and metal detectors, workers spread out in search of tiny lead fragments on walkways and rooftops. The gray flecks have been spotted in recent months by neighbors and state inspectors. The Redondo Police Department's 60-year-old firing range is believed to be the culprit.
"We used sort of a combination of all the different technologies out there," said environmental law attorney Carmen Trutanich, who is representing the beach city. "The city of Redondo Beach is doing this out of an abundance of caution."
The school across from the Beryl Street shooting range sent parents a letter Sept. 4 stating that any fragments found have been removed, and that sand has been replaced in a kindergarten playground where scientists collected a sample that was determined to contain significantly elevated levels of lead.
Tammy Kahn, spokeswoman for the Torrance Unified School District, said the district has been working closely with the state Department of Toxics Substances Control, which began an investigation this spring in response to a report about noise and possible lead fragments. The school wouldn't have opened if the area was deemed unsafe, Kahn added.
But the campus cleanup doesn't necessarily resolve the issue for Redondo Beach, which over the years has faced repeated complaints about the officer training site.
The DTSC on Friday was preparing to send the city a letter explaining a draft voluntary cleanup agreement that addresses "investigating for and removing lead from the surrounding neighborhood and nearby Dominguez Park," spokeswoman Carol Northrup said.
A copy of the letter was not available Friday.
It's unclear how the city would react to a proposal that expands cleanup operations into the park and private lots off Beryl Street.
Even though city attorneys say Redondo Beach "voluntarily agreed" to clean the school grounds as a precaution, they have cast doubts upon theories of how the tiny fragments ended up where they did.
The state agency has suggested that the particles could be fragments of bullets that ricocheted off angled targets and got dispersed by the wind.
But Trutanich and City Attorney Mike Webb are somewhat skeptical.
"We've uncovered some information that there may be someone salting the mine," Trutanich said. "We're not finding thousands upon thousands (of fragments), as if this thing has been there for 60 years. We're finding hundreds."
Webb, too, said the city has evidence that leads him to believe "someone may be either creating or exacerbating the situation." He declined to elaborate.
Webb also has expressed frustration that the city has yet to receive a report from the DTSC's enforcement arm, which is apparently conducting an investigation separate of the division that covers school sites. An inch-thick document released this week summarizes the findings at Towers.
Webb believes the agency's enforcement unit has delayed the release of its report contrary to a state law setting a 65-day time limit. "That becomes important because it points to what, if anything, we're responsible for," he said.
Northrup, though, said the agency doesn't believe the shooting range is subject to that law because it applies to hazardous waste facilities. She confirmed there is another report that is still in progress, but said she couldn't comment on it as the agency continues gathering information.
Since the DTSC began its investigation this spring, Redondo Beach opted to switch to a kind of lead-free ammunition that is said to disintegrate upon impact. The city has also hired an environmental consultant who once worked for the state agency, as well as the independent contractors who did the recent cleanup, Trutanich said.
Some Torrance residents are pushing for more changes.
Harry Stuver, who organized a group called Concerned Residents Against Pistol Range Redondo (CRAPRR), said noise has long been an issue for residents living near the open-air firing range. But he believes the recent discovery of fragments "is like the straw that broke the camel's back."
Stuver, whose group has roughly six core members, said that while the wayward fragments at Towers have been addressed, he still has concerns about others in the neighborhood. And the recent switch to a new type of ammunition doesn't address noise complaints, he added.
"If they would just enclose the pistol range, that would be fine," Stuver said.
In response to a complaint this spring, DTSC scientists on April 29 and May 1 took 30 sand and soil samples, used an X-ray device capable of registering lead and heavy metals and picked up roughly 230 fragments from the school, Beryl Street and Dominguez Park.
In June, the agency said the kindergarten playground had been blocked off because lab results indicated one of two samples taken from the sand area contained significantly elevated levels of lead. Two other samples from the grounds showed lead concentrations slightly exceeding DTSC screening levels.
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