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What Lies Beneath

It's one of the most satisfying days for school facility planners. The need has been established, funding secured, a site found and architect chosen. Now, administrators, school representatives and community VIPs have donned hardhats and are grasping shovels as they stand on a plot of plowed ground ready to turn the first spades of dirt on the construction site for a new facility.

But that sense of satisfaction can dissipate quickly if you subsequently discover that the site has hidden problems that could place the health and safety of students and staff in jeopardy. Education institutions that don't take adequate steps to assess the environmental conditions of potential sites could face a future of unanticipated expenses, and delayed or cancelled projects; at worst, they could be exposing their students and staff to chronic sickness and life-threatening diseases.

From coast to coast, education institutions that choose problematic sites have had to contend with upset parents and community groups worried about the health of their children, abandon projects after spending millions of dollars when it has become clear that a site is inappropriate for a facility, fall behind on construction timelines when they are forced to take remedial action after a project has broken ground, and defend themselves in court on charges of “environmental racism” when the risky sites they build their schools on serve a predominantly minority and low-income clientele.

“In dealing with this issue, some school officials may say, ‘Why create a problem where there isn't any,’ but the question should be, ‘How do you operate a school in the most environmentally effective manner?’” says Bob Hirsch, director of the brownfields program for the Center for Public Environment Oversight in Washington D.C.

Slim pickings

Education administrators don't seek out potentially hazardous land when choosing sites for new schools, but often that is where schools end up. A 2002 study by the Childproofing our Children Campaign, “Creating Safe Learning Zones,” looked at only five states — California, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey and New York — and found that 1,195 schools are within a half-mile radius of a known contaminated site.

Why is it that schools often end up on contaminated sites? Often, it is too difficult to find an uncontaminated site — especially in a built-out urban area — that meets all the other qualities desired in a school location: adequate acreage, appropriate topography, neighborhood acceptance, potential for joint uses and reasonable cost.

“Schools need a lot of land,” says John Frankenthal, an environmental consultant for School District 201 in Cicero, Ill. “In Cicero, it's hard to find that type of land at a reasonable cost.”

“We have to look at sites in commercial and industrial areas,” says Dave Jensen, acting deputy director in the Los Angeles Unified School District's Office of Environmental Health and Safety. “The conditions of the properties we see are all over the place — old oil fields, gas stations, dry cleaners, commercial and industrial sites, agricultural sites.”

And even if a better site is available, its price might be beyond the means of education institutions.

“Schools are generally built on the cheapest land available,” says Tolle Graham, coordinator of the Massachusetts Healthy Schools Network.

Because most schools purchase land and build facilities with public funds, they don't have to persuade a bank or other lending agency to provide a line of credit. That also means that no lending institution is insisting that the institution conduct a thorough investigation of a site.

“In order to get a loan, developers have to do a due-diligence investigation of what has gone on at a site,” says Hirsch. “Banks won't lend the money if they feel their collateral would be less valuable, which it would be if contaminants were found.”

In addition, education administrators may not be fully informed about what is required in a thorough environmental investigation.

“It's my sense that most school superintendents and administrators don't have a background in environmental issues,” says Ruther.

Political pressures to relieve student crowding and get a school built and operating may cause administrators to characterize potential environmental hazards in the most favorable light and not pursue remediation steps as aggressively. But that can alienate parents and community members who see contamination as a greater threat and who aren't convinced by institution assurances of safety. For instance:

  • In the Gwinnett County, Ga., school district outside Atlanta, parents are lobbying the state legislature and mulling legal action as they try to block the planned opening this summer of Sycamore Elementary School in Sugar Hill. The school has been built near two landfills. District officials say their investigation shows the site is safe, but to further assure parents, they will conduct more testing.

  • In Providence, R.I., community members have accused the school district of environmental racism when it built Carnevale Elementary School on what once was a city dump. The district's student population is composed mostly of minorities. The school opened in 1999 over the objections of opponents, and a judge has dismissed the discrimination charges from the lawsuit, which is still pending in a Rhode Island court.

Lessons in Los Angeles

The most notorious example of what can happen when institutions do not conduct a thorough assessment of school property is the Belmont Learning Complex in Los Angeles.

The district planned to build a 5,300-student high school west of the city's downtown to provide desperately needed classroom space for the area. Initial construction began in 1996; in 1998, California environmental officials found the site contained potentially hazardous levels of methane and hydrogen sulfide.

By the time the Los Angeles district suspended construction on the project in 2000, Belmont had been labeled as the most expensive mistake in education construction history — the district had spent $150 million to $200 million on the project. Numerous agencies were investigating what went wrong, and the district's superintendent was ousted. The district subsequently tried to resurrect the Belmont project, but further testing found that the land was sitting on an earthquake fault. Earlier this year, officials unveiled a proposal to build a 1,500-student high school on a smaller bedrock portion of the site.

“One of the main outcomes from what happened on the Belmont project were the new laws,” says Jensen.

The California legislature passed a law mandating that all districts in California conduct environmental site assessments and have them approved by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). By October 2002, the DTSC had received 1,000 environmental site reviews from school districts.

Under the law, schools are required to submit what is known as a Phase I review, which involves record checks of a property's past uses. If the review indicates the potential for contamination, the next step is a preliminary endangerment assessment, in which samples are taken. If significant contamination is present, a district may be required to clean up the site or choose an alternative location.

Cleaning a school site by removing contaminated soil is usually considered a more effective solution than trying to contain the material on site.

“With employee turnover in a district, institutional memory fades,” says Hirsch. “After 10 or 15 years, people just forget about what's occurred on a site.”

Jumping through hoops

Jensen says the Los Angeles district has been able to adapt to the more stringent regulations without much difficulty. “The district has a lot more resources,” he says. “It's a lot more knowledgeable and is able to drive the process more. Other districts — they'll get through it, but it must be frustrating for them.”

John Sinutko, director of school facilities for the Rio Elementary District in Oxnard, Calif., acknowledges that frustration.

“It's a lot of bureaucratic paperwork,” he says. “We're used to the process now, but right after Belmont, the DTSC was looking at things really closely.”

The added regulation cost the Rio district an additional $1 million at the Rio Del Norte Elementary School, which opened in 2001 on what had previously been an agricultural site. The DTSC assessed the school site soon after the Belmont fiasco, determined the site was contaminated with agricultural chemicals, and directed the district to remove the affected soil.

“Anything that keeps our kids safe is an appropriate thing to do,” says Sinutko, “but I think the state has overreacted. If the soil is safe enough to construct a home or a park or a hospital, it should be fine for a school as well. The school is held to a higher standard. Often times, it doesn't make sense. The same soil is across the street, where the children live and play.”

Others believe that the DTSC review, on top of all the other appraisals from state agencies, make building a school in California a nightmarish process.

“It's overkill,” says Maureen Gorsen, an attorney with Weston Benshoof Rochefort Rubalcava and MacCuish in Los Angeles. The firm represented the Los Angeles district during part of the investigation into the Belmont construction. Gorsen and G. Christian Roux, another partner in the law firm, have authored a voluminous manual on school construction in California. Guide to California School Facilities Law: A Desk Reference to Planning, Funding, Siting and Construction of School Facilities is scheduled to be published later this year.

Gorsen says that California legislators over the years have reacted to individual school crises, as they did with Belmont, by adding more regulations for school districts to adhere to as they try to build facilities. The result is a morass of rules and agency reviews that can bog down a construction project for years.

“The lesson learned is that you can't do these things on an ad hoc basis,” says Gorsen.

In addition to the reviews required by the DTSC, a school district in California wanting to build a facility might have to seek approval of the Department of Education, the State Allocation Board and the State Architect, as well as follow the provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act.

“There is a big transaction cost when multiple state agencies have to consult with each other,” says Gorsen. “If there were one state agency that a school district could communicate with, one person who was accountable, you could save time and costs without sacrificing any standards.”

New standards

California is one of the few jurisdictions that require environmental assessments of school sites, but more areas are beginning to adopt such standards.

In Illinois, the law requires environmental audits of any school building construction in Cook County, which includes Chicago.

In Cicero's District 201, officials with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency halted construction earlier this year on a freshman center for Morton East High School because no plan had been approved for cleaning up contaminants in the soil. Once the Illinois EPA approved the plan, it allowed construction to resume.

In February, the Massachusetts Board of Education adopted new rules that call for environmental assessments of new school sites. The new regulations state “Any proposed site not currently in use for educational purposes shall undergo an environmental site assessment…. This study shall also assess environmental conditions in the immediate vicinity of the proposed site which could impact the health and safety of students and school staff.”

Whether environmental assessments are required or not, Hirsch urges education institutions dealing with environmental assessments to be ready to deal with these issues: how a review and possible remediation could prolong the construction timeline, whether any funding source is available to pay for a site cleanup, and whether the community surrounding a school site has been kept adequately informed about the site conditions and has a role in seeking solutions.

As with most issues in education construction, the earlier that environmental assessment is addressed in the planning process, the better.

“You need to consider environmental issues early in your project,” says Jensen. “Allow enough time for an environmental review.”

Frankenthal adds: “Make sure you are coordinating your efforts with the local and state environmental officials. And don't purchase the property until the results of the investigations have been completed.”

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

Seeking national regulation

Last year, advocates for more thorough environmental assessments of potential school sites took their case to the nation's capital. The U.S. Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee held hearings last October on several issues related to green school initiatives, including federal regulations to ensure that school sites are examined carefully for environmental hazards.

“We need to make certain that the 6,000 new schools that are needed over the next 10 years are built on solid environmental ground — literally,” says U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). “I believe that establishing uniform guidelines would provide local communities with the tools they need to locate schools in places that will allow our children to learn, grow, and develop in a safe and healthy environment.”

A representative of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency testified that in the absence of federal regulations on site assessment, the EPA was nevertheless actively offering assistance to school districts on environmental issues.

“In a number of cases and for a variety of reasons, schools are sometimes being built on or close to existing sources of air, water and/or soil contamination,” says Ramona Trovato, deputy assistant administrator with the U.S. Office of Environmental Information. “While the federal government does not play a direct role in these decisions, we can help communities make wise decisions by providing better information of potential environmental risks and ways to reduce those risks.”

Lois Gibbs, executive director of the Center for Health Environment and Justice, urged lawmakers to support federal site assessment regulations with legislation and funding.

“While laws compel children to attend school, there are — astoundingly — no guidelines or laws in place that compel school districts to locate school buildings on property that will protect the school population from environmental health and safety risks,” Gibbs testified. “Parents are forced to send their children to some schools that pose a threat to their children's health and ability to learn.

“We are advocating for federal funding… to support schools that apply for the assessment, remediation and construction of ‘healthy’ schools on otherwise untenable sites. Without adequate resources the local school authorities cannot adequately assess the property nor clean the property to a standard that is protective of children.”

Advocates of federal regulation point out that since the hearings, the Republican Party has regained majority control of the Senate, and the prospects for federal legislation on environmental assessment are bleak.

Tips for acquiring safe school sites

Only a few areas in the nation require that education institutions conduct an environmental assessment of a potential school site before a facility is built. But environmental advocates believe it is in the best interests of an institution, as well as its students and staff, to closely examine a site's conditions before costly and potentially disastrous mistakes are made.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” says Paul Ruther, coordinator of the Childproofing Our Communities Campaign, an offshoot of the Center for Health and Environmental Justice.

In a 2001 report, “Poisoned Schools: Invisible Threats, Visible Actions,” the campaign says that to increase the likelihood that an institution will choose a safe and appropriate site for a new facility, administrators should follow these guidelines:

  • Schools should conduct a thorough examination of a proposed site, including a complete site history, a site visit, a survey of surrounding potential sources of contamination, and testing and evaluation of potential health risks to children. Where there is cause for concern, schools should find a different site.

  • If other sites are not available, the proposed site should be cleaned up to standards that protect children.

  • Under no circumstances should a school be built on top of a property that contains hazardous waste, garbage or other landfilled material.

  • No source of contamination, such as a landfill or containment facility, should be built within 1,000 feet of a school; no school should be situated within two miles of industrial or other facilities that release chemicals.

  • Parents, age-appropriate students, teachers and community members should be invited to take part in the site-acquisition process.

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