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New Jersey: New schools being built on contaminated sites


February 2005....."The primary criteria was reducing the number of residents who would be displaced by the new school," Superintendent Mary T. Stansky said. ...


February 20, 2005
New schools being built on contaminated sites
Asbury Park Press

In the state's 31 poorest districts. The Schools Construction Corp., which is overseeing the massive program in mostly urban areas, has purchased at least 22 contaminated or possibly contaminated sites, a review of state records shows.

SCC and state environmental officials say the sites will be cleaned or Wren, a spokeswoman for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. Commissioner Campbell said New Jersey changed its cleanup standards because of the new information. In the fall, state environmental officials compiled a list of 55 contaminated properties, and 38 more properties possibly contaminated, which are under consideration to become schools. Four were rejected.

Seebode said the DEP has not estimated cleanup costs because they must be paid for by the SCC.

Lenny Siegel, director of the California-based Center for Environmental Oversight, a nonpartisan activist group, also reviewed state DEP records of several sites for Gannett New Jersey.

Siegel, who has taught site mitigation at UCLA, said the DEP has done well to test the soil at the Trenton site, recommend more study in New Brunswick and make plans to remove radiation in Gloucester City.

But he said if state officials are going to clean up the sites correctly, it will likely cost them more than they anticipate.

A $1 million cleanup estimate in Trenton, Siegel said, would "do some superficial removal."

He said the state should not make a final decision on a property that will become a school site until all the cost estimates are in.

"Too often people put the cart before the horse and say, "Here's how we're going to solve this problem,' and they don't know that," Siegel said.

As an example of how cleanup costs can escalate, Siegel pointed to the Belmont Learning Center, a Los Angeles high school. There, officials already have spent $175 million on a cleanup and plan to spend $111 million more. The site is nationally known as an example of how costs can escalate once remediation begins.

A California state investigation called it "a public works disaster of biblical proportions." The project is now on hold.

DEP Commissioner Campbell was an environmental adviser to President Clinton in the 1990s and familiarized himself with Los Angeles's school-building problems. Campbell said he designed New Jersey's program to avoid similar problems.

Critics: Money diverted 

Environmentalists contend the state is diverting money intended for the new urban school buildings and are pouring it into expensive cleanups of contaminated properties.

Wolfe, the former DEP analyst who now is a consultant for a nonprofit state environmental group, said the school construction program may be a back-door attempt to fund environmental cleanup under the cover of a state Supreme Court order aimed at improving school buildings.

"Why are we diverting money that's supposed to go to the educationally neediest for environmental cleanup?" Wolfe said. "Why? Because we've done poor planning. Does this then become a big-ticket item to pay environmental consultants?"

DEP, SCC and local school officials, and McNeill, the former SCC head, insist that in dense urban districts, there are few large clean sites on which to build new schools without tearing down houses. The options are to knock down blocks of houses, or clean up old industrial property and put the schools there.

Cleanups are "a last resort, and it's expensive," said former SCC director McNeill, adding that he did reject some sites proposed by school districts. "There are some you'd never put a kid on."

McNeill said he believes some cities and school districts are willing to place schools on contaminated properties as a way to get the state to clean them up and keep other properties on their tax rolls.

"They figure it's not usable for much else, and they figure the state has the money," McNeill said.

Fewer contaminated sites might be chosen if the state were to let school districts, especially small ones, build on land outside of their community. "Maybe the answer is to put it in the next town over," he said.

Won't send grandaughter 

Such an option was not considered in Gloucester City.

From the front window of her house in Gloucester City last week, Kim Garwood expressed reservations about whether the cleanup would be long term. She could see men in protective white suits walking around, getting ready to remove radioactive soil from the federal Superfund site across the street.

Before long, the site, which was contaminated when spent radioactive ore produced nearby was dumped there, will be transformed into a sports field for the new middle school. Other toxins, such as chromium and benzene from three other former industrial sites, also pollute parts of the future school property, according to state records.

So, Garwood says, when her 16-month-old granddaughter is old enough, she'll go to the local Catholic school instead.

"I feel sorry for them," Garwood said, referring to the children who will go to the public school.

Gloucester City, a 2-square-mile town south of Camden, where its Delaware River waterfront once teamed with good-paying manufacturing jobs, is suffering a long industrial hangover.

One business, the Welsbach Co., produced mantles for gas lanterns for almost 60 years until closing in 1940. The company refined radioactive thorium from monazite ore, then spread some of the waste ash around town, filling gullies and old stream beds, and may have offered it for use as fill by city residents.

The federal EPA, since then, has said thorium is a long-term cancer risk. In the 1990s, the Welsbach waste sites were added to the federal Superfund list. Since then, the EPA has removed radioactive soil from several residential properties, a public park and municipal swimming club.

In 2000, when the Gloucester City Board of Education sought to build a middle school, it chose one of the contaminated areas. The primary criteria was reducing the number of residents who would be displaced by the new school, Superintendent Mary T. Stansky said.

"We only agreed to it because we know it's going to be perfectly safe," Stansky said. "I think if we had a non-contaminated property, that is the choice. I have kids, too. That is certainly the best choice. But . . . you can't take eight acres of houses."

She said all the sites the district considered had some contamination. She said the district didn't consider placing a school facility in a nearby town that would require neither environmental remediation nor the razing of homes. The annual busing cost could be $200,000 to $300,000 a year, she said.

In Gloucester City, residents are accustomed to the byproducts of their former industry.

"When you live in Gloucester, no matter where you are, you can be pretty sure that there's something contaminated beneath you," said resident Helen Whitcraft, 37. "You just hope for the best."

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