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Brockovich takes on Beverly Hills high

A legendary environmental crusader has taken on a celebrity school in a legal battle with all the ingredients of a big-screen epic.

Erin Brockovich, immortalised in the eponymous Hollywood blockbuster, has launched a legal battle against Beverly Hills high school, real-life inspiration for the hit TV series Beverly Hills 90210.

The case mixes charges of official malfeasance with oil, allegedly linked to a cancer cluster among the rich and famous in one of America's most exclusive enclaves. The school is the alma mater of Angelina Jolie, Nicolas Cage, Lenny Kravitz and Monica Lewinsky.

Ms Brockovich and legal partner Ed Masry sued Beverly Hills education authority last week for allegedly presiding over a toxic oil rig at the school, which they say is implicated in cancer rates among ex-students more than 20 times higher than normal incidences.

The duo unveiled details of more than 250 cancer cases among 11,500 students who attended the school between 1975-97, and another 40 among teachers.

"People in the 1970s would go to a football game and end up with oil all over their shirts," said Ms Brockovich.

The oil drilling operation, located underneath athletics pitches, spans a honeycomb of 18 operational wells and eight disused ones that may be inadequately sealed off, according to Ms Brockovich. She compared it to a deep-sea oil platform transplanted to land.

A 150ft-high oil derrick marks the site. It was christened the Tower of Hope by operator Venoco in 2000 and adorned with flowers painted by children. But some have renamed it the Tower of Fear.

Recent pollution readings taken at the site by Ms Brockovich's law firm, Masry amp; Vititoe, found high concentrations of benzene and other carcinogenic chemicals.

Beverly Hills school district, which indicated it would contest the legal action, said in a statement that its own air samples returned results well within safety limits.

School officials were tight-lipped but pronounced the oil platform perfectly safe. Some parents remain unconvinced, though, demanding it be shut off and withdrawing their children from physical education.

Oil proceeds have long been a cash-cow for the education authority, pocketing up to $700,000 (pound;437,000) annually in recent years, and more than $3.6 million from 1980 to 1983, said Ms Brockovich, citing internal documents.

Damages being sought were not specified, but they could outstrip the $333m she helped California pollution victims win from Pacific Gas and Electric in 1996, says Mr Masry. This was the case depicted in the 2000 film, Erin Brockovich, in which the title role was played by Julia Roberts, who won an Oscar for her portrayal, and Mr Masry was played by Albert Finney.

The pair plan to extend the litigation to deep-pocketed oil companies ChevronTexaco and Occidental, which they say pumped oil from the site.

A ChevronTexaco spokesman said that Chevron's involvement had ended before the Second World War and is examining whether its partner Texaco had interests.

Oil derricks from a 19th-century drilling boom litter Los Angeles, making school planning in the city extremely difficult.

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