The embattled Sweetwater Union High School District is now facing a new embarrassing situation.
If you look at the south end of the Southwest High School track and football field, you will find a large pile of dirt.
"We're not happy about the dirt being there, but we're going to do something about it," said Sweetwater Union High School District Superintendent Ed Brand.
Brand said he inherited the problem. The dirt was trucked in last year in the spring. Jesus Gandara, who now faces charges of bribery and accepting unreported gifts from contractors, was superintendent then.
"I can't tell you specifically where it came from," said Brand. "I believe it was a group of volunteers that brought the dirt in."
When asked if that meant volunteers with dump trucks brought in that large quantity of dirt for weeks, Brand replied, "What I'm saying is it didn't cost us anything. I don't know where the dirt came from."
He added, "All the questions that you're asking are certainly questions that should be asked, but at the end of the day we have a pile of dirt."
10News has learned at the time, some staff members did question the dirt's purpose and poor quality. But the large rocks, roots and other debris in the soil is just the tip of the iceberg. The real problem was what lay hidden inside.
Soil testing records obtained by 10News show the dirt is contaminated. Out of 14 samples, 10 show elevated levels of lead, pesticides -- including DDT -- or petroleum hydrocarbons linked to underground gasoline storage tanks.
How safe has it been to be near the pile for more than a year?
"Well, the results that we've gotten, number one, is that it's not toxic to humans," said Brand.
But the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, the powerful agency that oversees sediment management, said it is too early to say the dirt is safe.
"It could be a threat to human health and environmental health. The lead is certainly an issue," said David Gibson, the board's executive officer. "It's hard to say at this point whether it's safe to play on or not, and we would prefer to assume that it's not and that we treat it as such."
Gibson said more testing is needed and that the board should have been notified immediately not only about the dirt pile but about the test results as well.
He said the issue is not only about direct contact with the soil. Contamination potentially spread by the wind and runoff is an issue.
When asked whether he was concerned that the dirt is sitting on top of a storm drain, Brand replied, "I'm always concerned when things are done that shouldn't have been done."
Documents show test results were ready on May 22, which is more than a week before the district's summer break began.
Parents and neighbors living just feet from the dirt mound are upset they were not informed.
"When it comes to our kids, I think they have a responsibility to let us know a lot sooner," said George Alfaro, whose two daughters attend Southwest High School.
Norma Harrison, whose young daughter has asthma, said, "They say, 'Oh there's nothing bad.' OK, so what are you waiting (for), until somebody die(s) or somebody gets so sick?"
Brand said, "There are contaminants in it but there's probably contaminants in a lot of backyards throughout San Diego County."
The control board disagrees.
"Those levels are not normal and we would not consider that to be safe or acceptable for long-term exposure," said Gibson.
Regarding what to do with the dirt, the cheaper option is to somehow contain it and leave it. Experts say properly hauling away contaminated dirt to a certified landfill could cost millions, which means the so-called free dirt turned out to be anything but dirt cheap.
The superintendent said the district is now accepting bids. The San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board has launched an investigation, and other agencies may also be called in to investigate.
10News and authorities are trying to determine where the dirt came from.
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