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SPECIAL COVERAGE: Living With Wildfires: San Diego Firestorm 10 Years Later

Money Likely A Factor In Carlsbad Cancer Testing

The question of whether toxic substances at a Carlsbad school are causing cancer may be answered soon. The board of trustees is likely to decide this month whether to test the soil and air at the campus.

When word spread early last week about dump trucks leaving Kelly Elementary School, Carlsbad grandfather Travis Burlson and three others got into their cars and engaged in a slow-speed chase.

"We made several attempts to follow a truck of loaded soil and every time it came around and came back. They knew all our cars so we weren't successful with that," said Burlson.

Burlson wanted a sample of the soil from Kelly School to have it tested for toxins. Burlson said his daughter is one of nine teachers and 18 one-time students at Kelly School who have developed cancer over the last decade.

"I'm not a doctor. I'm not a scientist. I will just tell you the cancer occurrence at Kelly School is above the norm," he said.

Parents suspect residual pesticides from Carlsbad's farming days. They've been pressing the school district to test. District officials refused. And they would not allow parents to take the soil for independent testing.

The district wanted to wait until results from a state study on the city's cancer rates were available. This week, state health officials said they found no cancer cluster in Carlsbad. Researchers checked the community around Kelly school and could verify only half of the 323 cancer cases residents had reported.

But the state did not study Kelly School where much of the concern has centered, even though the California Cancer Registry's Kurt Snipes said such a review is possible.

"But it's labor intensive and takes longer than the initial assessment just looking at the communities and looking at how much cancer is occurring based on what you would expect in the census tract areas of residents," Snipes explained.

Ken August of the California Department of Public Health said researchers will start verifying the student cancer cases at Kelly but a full-blown study is not guaranteed.

"The process is what drives this when we find out more about those 18 cases." said August. "If they are all in the registry that will help dictate what the next step would be, whether it's to launch a nine-month study or whether it's to do something else that's going to be more of what the community wants."

Burleson said many people in the community want environmental testing at Kelly. But he said district officials have told him privately they're worried about the possible cost implications of the test results.

"They made mention of it numerous times that it's about the money. It's the cost of the fix," said Burleson.

The cost of testing at a school runs about $60,000. Of the district's 15 school sites, seven have been tested. Three have required soil cleanup. Carlsbad Superintendent John Roach said toxin removal at just one school is more than a million dollars.

"Unfortunately, the board needs that information to know what they're considering."

Roach said he'll recommend this month that the board allow testing at Kelly school. He says his personal opinion about the matter is not appropriate but . . "I am human. I'd like people to find a sense of peace or a sense of closure about their loss. I'd like them also to feel confident in what we do for their children."

School board members did not respond to requests for interviews. If they vote against testing, there may be little recourse. The law only requires environmental testing on sites where schools were built after 1999. Kelly was built in 1979. Even though the state could undertake its own tests, Tom Cota of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control said there's no reason to do that.

"There is no regulatory requirement for the DTSC to do the sampling," said Cota. "We don't have any evidence that there has been release of any type of substances on the site."

But local environmental lawyer Marco Gonzalez said just because the law says the state does not have to test, does not mean it can't.

"The government's primary duty is to protect its citizens," said Gonzalez. "We know that these schools were built in locations that didn't have the luxury that they have today of environmental standards. The notion that we set a cutoff that you can only study newer schools is counterintuitive to the whole rationale."

Gonzalez said not doing the testing will further undermine the public's confidence in its government.

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