OAKLAND (CBS SF) — The discovery of a cancer-causing chemical at Oakland’s McClymonds High School is causing additional concern for people living and working in the area around the school.

School district and city officials say the industrial solvent tricloroethylene (TCE) was found in groundwater under the campus and was coming from a site off the school grounds. The school was closed Thursday indefinitely while air testing was to be conducted to see if the chemical was vaporizing into the classrooms and buildings. The school’s drinking water has not been affected.

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In a statement released Thursday, City Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney said the Alameda County Environmental Health Department identified the source of the TCE as “a former industrial site a few blocks from the school.”

At a community meeting Thursday evening, one resident who lives accross the street from McClymonds offered the concern many of her neighbors feel.

“It does make me question not only my health but the health of the community,” said resident Kim Ard-Elutilo. “People, period, that’s in our area. Just the fact that we live around all these factories.”

Gibson McElhaney called on the state Department of Toxic Substances Control to test the neighborhoods near the school and begin a plan to mitigate and remedy the TCE threat.

County environmental health officials first received a report with information on the chemical’s presence in the school’s groundwater in January, school district spokesman John Sasaki said.

After an expedited review period and a meeting with district officials last Friday, the county and the district elected to test for a potential chemical plume, Sasaki said at a Thursday afternoon news conference.

Sasaki and Dilan Roe, the chief of the Alameda County Department of Environmental Health’s Land and Water Division, said the closure was due to the chemical’s potential to vaporize into the campus’ air.

“We are concerned that it could be vaporizing … particularly in our buildings,” Sasaki said.

District and county officials know of at least three nearby sites that have high levels of trichloroethylene, which is often used as an industrial solvent and in metal processing.

District and county officials could not say for certain how long the compound may have been in the school’s groundwater, but Roe suggested the closure was “really, really conservative” and later added that the campus is the main focus for now.

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“Right now we don’t have any data that says there is (contaminated) groundwater in the neighborhood,” she said.

School district board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge and Gibson McElhaney both said the contamination is indicative of a long history of environmental injustice in the area.

“This is West Oakland and so there is a history of environmental injustice, of racial injustice that happens in this community. So these are places where there are leaks, there are dumps, there are things like that that are not healthy for our community,” said Hinton Hodge.

Ultimately, Sasaki said, the task of mitigating the public’s exposure to toxic chemicals like trichloroethylene falls at the feet of state environmental health officials and the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.

Roe said the county’s Department of Environmental Health will test the school’s air over the weekend for the chemical’s presence and its concentration will determine the next steps and how soon the school can be reopened.

If the closure extends to next week, Sasaki said a temporary location would be found to accommodate the school’s faculty and roughly 350 students. The district is actively seeking an alternate location in the event it becomes necessary to continue school as scheduled.

“We’re going to find a space as quickly as we possibly can to get this back on the road,” Sasaki said.

Gibson McElhaney said in her statement Thursday evening that leaders of Oakland faith communities have offered to make their churches available for temporary classrooms if the school district decides that space is needed for classes to resume next week.

There will be two informational meetings on Monday for updates on the closure at West Oakland Middle School Library.


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