Black secret of Beverly Hills High

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The Independent US

Beverly Hills High School may be the emblematic training ground of Hollywood's elite, with more famous alumni than you could squeeze on to a movie credit roll, but it is also a place with an unpalatable secret.

Beverly Hills High School may be the emblematic training ground of Hollywood's elite, with more famous alumni than you could squeeze on to a movie credit roll, but it is also a place with an unpalatable secret.

The state-run school has been bank-rolling its enviable academic programme and school facilities for three decades with the royalties from a less than enviable industrial activity: oil prospecting, directly beneath the school grounds.

Students have long complained about the noxious fumes and unpleasant smells emanating from below ground, where more than a dozen separate wellheads are in operation. And now there is reason to suspect an altogether more sinister effect following the detection of a cancer cluster among the school's former students.

None other than Erin Brockovich – the real-life environmental crusader made famous by Julia Roberts's Oscar-winning portrayal on the big screen – let the school know last week that she and her law firm intended to file a monster lawsuit on behalf of 20 alumni diagnosed with a variety of ailments including Hodgkin's disease, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and thyroid cancer.

She then went on a local television news programme to explain how experts from her law firm, Masry and Vititoe, had tested the air around the school over a period of months and found alarmingly high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, as well as methane and toluene.

At first the levels were so high they beggared belief. "When they came back I said I can't believe this. So we went four, five, six times. And each time we were getting the same results," Ms Brockovich said.

The news has struck the Beverly Hills school district like a thunderbolt. All industrial activity has been halted pending an investigation. School officials have promised to provide swift answers to the concerns of parents and current students, hiring a team of environmental specialists to conduct their own tests.

The school district said that southern California's air-quality management district (AQMD) had been testing the air regularly since 1999, but glaringly omitted to say whether the results of those tests gave the school a clean bill of health. Since issuing the statement, both the AQMD and the private oil company on site, Venoco of Santa Barbara, have chosen not to utter a word.

The AQMD told the local television affiliate, KCBS, that it did not believe Ms Brockovich's results and that its own more recent testing has shown up only an abnormality in the level of toluene. When contacted by The Independent on Sunday, the AQMD was no longer available for comment.

Oil has been a dirty secret across the Los Angeles landscape for more than a century, with derricks carefully hidden in oceanside resorts, residential neighbourhoods and even in the centre of a shopping mall.

At the high school, it was always promoted as a benefit, and during the 1970s oil crisis the school's earnings from the extraction beneath its grounds reached as high as $1.5m (£1m) a year. Thanks to the oil money, Beverly Hills High has managed to offer some of the highest teachers' salaries of any school in the US. Alumni include Andre Previn, Nicolas Cage, Angelina Jolie, Richard Chamberlain, Lenny Kravitz and David Schwimmer.

The school and its various resident oil companies have always boasted about the high safety standards of the operation, which is discreetly hidden on the edge of campus. Indeed, when other building projects in LA have encountered problems with residual methane and other toxic gases created by exploration, Beverly Hills High has been held up by developers and urban planners as an example of good practice.

Students at the school have always known, however, to hold their noses. One teenager interviewed for a documentary on oil exploration in LA explained the problem in inimitable Beverly Hills fashion: "Sometimes it gets, like, annoying because, like, you can, like, smell, like, the fumes, like, during PE and stuff."