School Oil Wells Cause Beverly Hills Willies

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Erin Brockovich and lawyer Ed Masry, whose legal efforts on behalf of a group of small-town victims of polluted water were portrayed in a hit movie bearing her name, targeted the Beverly Hills, Calif., school district last week for their latest round of environmental activism.

Masry & Vititoe, a Westlake Village, Calif., law firm where Ms. Brockovich is research director, alleges that toxic emissions from oil wells under Beverly Hills High School caused as many as 300 cases of Hodgkin's disease, non- Hodgkin's lymphoma, and thyroid cancer among alumni and nearby residents.

"The school has the equivalent of an offshore oil rig under its land," Ms. Brockovich said in an interview last week. "We're standing here for 300 people with cancer and they all have one common denominator: Beverly Hills High School."

The law firm on April 26 filed administrative complaints with the 5,300-student Beverly Hills Unified School District and the city of Beverly Hills on behalf of 25 alleged victims of toxic emissions. The firm plans to sue those agencies as well as three oil companies with past or current involvement in the oil operation, Mr. Masry said.

District Responds

Gwen E. Gross, the superintendent of the school district, said the legal claims have been sent to district lawyers for review.

"For the past several months, we have been aggressively pursuing the facts and communicating what we have learned with the community," Ms. Gross said in a statement last week.

The possibility of a "cancer cluster" caused by the oil wells at Beverly Hills High has been the talk of the famously wealthy community since February, when a Los Angeles TV station aired a "sweeps" month report called "Toxic School."

The concerns grew out of chance meetings at a doctor's office by Beverly Hills High alumni who found that they shared the same cancer diagnosis for Hodgkin's disease. They got in touch with Ms. Brockovich, and her law firm hired experts to test the air around the school. They found that the oil wells emitted high levels of benzene vapors and other chemicals.

The findings shook the community, and as many as 600 showed up at a Masry & Vititoe meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel designed to recruit potential litigants.

Meanwhile, the school district and the city asked the South Coast Air Quality Management District, a pollution-control agency, to perform its own air tests. The agency has performed numerous tests since February and has not found unusually high levels of benzene, hexane, or other potentially toxic substances in the air.

"We have now done several days of sampling on and around the school grounds," Sam Atwood, an agency spokesman, said last week. "We didn't see anything abnormal."

'I Don't See a Panic'

Mr. Masry said the law firm's tests were performed when the weather was warmer than in recent months and when the oil wells were functioning at full levels. They have been shut down at times since the cancer concerns were raised.

"Our results show there is definitely a link to cancer ratios that are extremely high," Mr. Masry said.

Oil wells dotted the site of Beverly Hills High before the school was built in 1928. That early drilling activity ended decades ago, and there was a small amount of drilling from the late 1950s through the early 1970s, said Michael Edwards, a vice president of Venoco Inc.

The Carpinteria, Calif.-based oil company now operates the wells that were drilled beginning in the early 1980s. Mr. Edwards said 15 active wells on the site, all with underground wellheads, produce about 500 barrels of oil and 340,000 cubic feet of natural gas per day from rock formations 6,000 feet to 8,000 feet down. The district earned about $300,000 in royalty income last year, he said.

The most visible sign of the oil operation is a 165-foot inactive derrick near the school's athletic fields. It is dubbed the "Tower of Hope" after a charity project in which children with cancer and other diseases decorated panels to cover it.

"It's been several years since we drilled a well," Mr. Edwards said.

Venoco is among the oil companies Mr. Masry says will be sued. The others are Occidental Petroleum Corp. and Chevron, now part of ChevronTexaco Corp., liable in the plaintiffs' view for their past involvement with the drilling operation at the site.

Fears appear to have subsided somewhat due to the district test results.

"I don't see a panic among our parents at all," said Myra Lurie, the president of the Beverly Hills PTA Council. "At present, it doesn't look like we have a toxic situation. But we're going to investigate it much more thoroughly."

"When it comes to our public schools," she said, "we're not really the '90210' rich and famous stuff. We're a small town where people have children's safety at heart."

Vol. 22, Issue 34, Page 3

Published in Print: May 7, 2003, as School Oil Wells Cause Beverly Hills Willies
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