Safe Sites for Green Schools

April 1, 2011
Proposed EPA guidelines will help school systems decide where facilities should be built.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has prepared draft voluntary guidelines to help communities make sound choices in selecting sites for new schools.

"This guidance will help address the pressing environmental issues that parents, school boards and local residents often consider when making investments in their local schools," says EPA administrator Lisa Jackson. "By offering guidance on long-term environmental and health concerns, it will also help local communities plan ahead and reduce the risk of costly changes down the road."

The proposed guidelines have been based on four principles, the EPA states:

•Safe and healthful school environments are integral components of the education process.

•School siting decisions should help increase the livability and sustainability of neighborhoods and communities.

•The process should consider the environmental health of the entire community, including disadvantaged and underserved populations.

•The environmental review process should be rigorous, thorough, well documented and include substantive and ongoing public involvement.

The guidelines were crafted in response to federal legislation that directed the EPA and the departments of Education and Health and Human Services to develop site selection strategies that take into account the vulnerabilities of children to hazardous substances or pollution; the modes of transportation available to students and staff; the efficient use of energy; and the potential use of a school at the site as an emergency shelter.

Here are some of the characteristics that the EPA says are desirable for school sites:

•Low environmental risks: sites that pose "the least potential for exposure and risks to children and staff from pollutants in air, soil and water." Among the potential environmental risks: air pollution; soil contamination; use of agricultural pesticides; groundwater pollution; surface water pollution; safety hazards; accidental releases or spills of hazardous chemicals; noise; and odors. A school system, through its site-selection process, should determine environmental risks through a transparent review, the EPA says.

•Proximity to community resources: School systems should strive to build their facilities within walking or biking distance of neighborhood amenities such as libraries, parks, public swimming pools and emergency shelters.

•Neighborhood attendance boundaries: School facilities should be situated so that a large portion of the student body lives within ½ to 1 mile of the school.

•Safe access: School systems should ensure that students have safe routes to and from school. This can be accomplished by incorporating features such as sidewalks, bike lanes and crosswalks.

•Land preservation: School systems should avoid building facilities on sites that have sensitive existing uses, such as critical habitats, parks or farmland.

•Renewable energy. School systems should select sites where more sustainable energy uses—solar, wind or geothermal power—can be incorporated.

•Water and sewer connections. Constructing a facility that can tap into the public water and sewer systems is likely to simplify maintenance and regulatory issues. The EPA notes that if a school has a drilled well and is its own water source, it has to abide by the regulations of the Safe Water Drinking Act.

The agency notes in the proposed guidelines that in nearly all cases, state and local agencies are responsible for school site selection.

"The guidelines are designed to support state, tribal and community decision-makers in evaluating their existing school siting and construction processes and policies, especially when the presence of contamination may pose a threat to a safe learning environment," the EPA says.

The entire 117-page draft document is at The public comment period for the guidelines concluded last month, and the EPA expects they will be finalized in late 2011.

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