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San Diego Unified sues cities over the old landfill that sits underneath Bell Middle School

The district wants the cities of La Mesa and National City to pay for ongoing clean up and monitoring of the old Sweetwater Landfill.

SAN DIEGO — San Diego Unified School District has filed a lawsuit against National City and La Mesa to try and get the cities to pay to clean an old landfill that sits underneath Bell Middle School.

CBS 8 first reported the district's plans to pursue legal action last month after obtaining legal claims through a public records request.

Officials at both National City and La Mesa denied the claims which allowed the city to file the lawsuit.

The lawsuit aims to hold the two cities financially accountable for their use of the old Sweetwater Landfill at 620 Briarwood Road.

The cities used the landfill from 1960 through 1967 before San Diego Unified built what was then Bell Junior High on portions of the landfill in 1969.

Credit: Ninyo & Moore
Map of School and Site of Former Landfill

According to the lawsuit, in 2002 the Regional Water Quality Control Board ordered the district to monitor the water quality at Bell Middle School after 26 different "volatile organic compounds" were found in the groundwater. 

In 2019, the water board required the district to further assess the groundwater contamination and the presence of chemical compounds in the groundwater.

 The district is now demanding that La Mesa and National City help pay for the studies as well as help remediate the landfill.

The cities, reads the lawsuit, are "responsible for all or part of the damages, expenses, and costs incurred or to be incurred by the [district] in the investigation and clean-up of contamination of the [landfill] in the form of these hazardous substances."

Contamination at Bell Middle School

In a July 15 statement, district officials told CBS 8 that the air and water is clean and students and staff at Bell Middle School are safe from any health risks associated with the landfill.

A 2011 environmental assessment from Ninyo & Moore, found the methane gas that emanates from the landfill does not exceed current air standard levels. 

That, however, wasn't always the case. According to a 1989 Los Angeles Times article, county officials closed the playground in 1989 due to methane seeping into the playground. Officials at the time detected methane gas readings of 65,000 parts per million which is considered combustible.

As for the groundwater at Bell Middle School, the 2011 environmental report found "volatile organic compounds" such as benzene, chloroform, methane, refrigerant compounds, and vinyl chloride in groundwater samples.

The Importance of Public Outreach

Community activist and chairwoman for Black Men and Women United, Francine Maxwell, told CBS 8 that she worries about the lack of public outreach and potential health risks for those who may have unknowingly been exposed to contamination. 

"We are very concerned about people being exposed to things that they said that they've been monitoring," said Maxwell. "Sometimes it takes a while for people to tell their doctor. So yes, we are concerned and we look to our elected officials to share information with us."

“I don't believe there has been enough outreach," said Maxwell. "Sometimes people think that they do enough, but then when they sit back, and they remember that we do have a lack of community engagement in Southeastern San Diego."

Added Maxwell, "We have a board of trustees of the second largest school district in the state. And there should be a town hall meeting for one or they should begin to use their faith-based relationships and partnerships and go to our local churches and start to educate people. Climate is just so important. And we have a lot of climate ambassadors in the city of San Diego, but we also have people that never hear about the climate, the air the water, so we really need to educate our constituents."

A spokesperson for San Diego Unified said students and staff are safe and are not exposed to poor air quality or polluted groundwater. As for the reason for the lawsuit, the district says it is only "looking to the other public agencies that utilized the landfill to contribute to the ongoing clean up and mitigation costs." 

CBS 8 reached out to officials from La Mesa and National City but they did not respond to requests for comment. 

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