What Lies Beneath Urban Schools has Some Worried

By ROWAN SHARP/ecoRI News college intern

PROVIDENCE — Del Sesto Middle School and Anthony Carnevale Elementary School are clean-looking modern buildings in shades of terra cotta, placed like dolls’ houses on a swatch of unmarked green lawn. Their end of Springfield Street, in the Hartford neighborhood, is a leafy cul-de-sac — nothing at all to suggest that these schools were the site of a fiercely contested environmental battle, or the inspiration for a new piece of legislation that recently passed the Senate.

This bill, S2277, seeks to outlaw school construction on sites like Springfield Street, where there is potential danger for “toxic vapor intrusion,” and to increase transparency and community involvement in all school-siting decisions.

Liz Stone, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM), described the attitude of those pushing for the new legislation as, “let’s learn from how it should not have happened,” meaning the two Springfield schools, she said.

The new bill is pending a vote in the House, as is its companion bill, H7412 (pdf). Barring individual amendments, the bills are identical; only one of the two must pass for the new rules to become law.

Tainted history
So what did happen on Springfield Street? Employees at Del Sesto Middle School recently implied that neighborhood resentment persists; however, they said they had been told not to speak to the press.

The conflict started on a March morning in 1999, when local residents saw bulldozers breaking ground on an overgrown but well-known former garbage dump. The site had been selected for the schools in 1998, but construction began before it was permitted, and with no communication to the surrounding community. This lack of transparency, as much as the potential dangers for students, caused an uproar.

The landfill on Springfield Street was unique because, while an estimated 300,000 tons of waste and fill material were dumped there before the site became overgrown, it was never a licensed dump. In 1999, the city, which had operated the site in the 1960s and ’70s, denied that it had been a dump at all.

But testing revealed that the soil there was contaminated with heavy metals and dangerous volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — chemicals that easily escape the ground and enter the air we breathe. While soil capping can block heavy metals — there’s a minimum 2-foot cap of clean soil at Springfield — VOCs are trickier. Buildings can have a “chimney effect,” pulling volatile substances out of the ground and into their interior air.

Children are uniquely vulnerable to toxins. According to Dr. Phillip J. Landrigan, of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, “children are not little adults.” Their developing bodies are much more profoundly vulnerable than the bodies of grownups. Proportional to their bodyweight, children breathe more air, eat more food and have more surface area, making them especially vulnerable to toxins breathed or absorbed through the skin.

In 1999, concerned residents in the Springfield Street neighborhood teamed up with Rhode Island Legal Services to file civil action lawsuits against the city and DEM. One suit charged “environmental racism,” because the prospective student body was predominantly non-white; another charged failure to give adequate notice of the planned construction and demanded that the schools not be opened due to potential hazards.

But the schools were completed, and continue to operate. To counteract the potential health hazards, both schools include a foundation-level — or “sub-slab” — ventilation system and air-monitoring systems. The systems are inspected quarterly by DEM and independently by the Providence company Fuss & O’Neill Inc.

This ventilation system works by a vacuum that sucks out potentially contaminated air at the foundation and routes it through a pipe to the roof, where it is released, according to John Chambers, vice president of Fuss & O’Neill.

Chambers, whose Providence office is located on a remediated brownfield, said confidently that the Springfield Street schools have been, and continue to be, safe for students.

Steve Fischbach, a lawyer who was involved in the first Springfield lawsuit, disagreed. The site was never tested carefully, he said, explaining that it’s safest to do “grid testing” of contaminated areas — that is, to test regularly and evenly for contaminants in a grid pattern that covers the site.

In his cluttered, comfortable office in downtown Providence, Fischbach unfurled a large map of the Springfield site — the testing locations are scattered apparently at random and he believe there aren’t enough.

“Anything could be dumped there. If there was a hotspot of something …” he trailed off.

It’s not even known how big the landfill is. A resident a block away from the school, sitting outside with her infant granddaughter, said she once dug up a wheelbarrow in her backyard. It’s no secret that houses were built on top of the illegal landfill.

In 2006, a visitor from the California-based Center for Public Environmental Oversight published a deeply critical report of the schools’ vapor monitoring systems. The report said that while the systems monitored overall VOC levels in the air, they did not give individual readings for the most dangerous VOCs, which the report claimed is a requirement for maximum safety.

The report also noted a discrepancy between Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) clean air standards and those used by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The latter standards are those used by the two schools’ monitors, and are looser than EPA standards.

More than a decade later, Fischbach still represents area residents who would like to see more testing done at the Springfield Street locations. “Given that it’s being used for school purposes, it’s better to know more than less,” he said. Fischbach also helped write a set of national school siting guidelines that the EPA published last fall. Though the guidelines are voluntary, he hopes they’ll serve as a policy guide to help other states develop legislation.

School-siting delay
Rhode Island’s school-siting bill wasn’t drafted until 2009 — partly because the state had no organized environmental justice advocacy groups until 2007, when the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island was founded. Fischbach, who is a board member, wrote the first version of the bill.

As Stone recalled, that draft was too broadly worded to be viable. The challenge with writing such a bill for a former industrial state like Rhode Island is that if schools are forbidden on any contaminated land, building any urban school would become illegal.

There are 2,290 brownfield acres in Providence alone. “You’re likely to find contamination anywhere you dig in the urban area,” said Stone, adding that this must be acknowledged for legislation to be useful for Rhode Island communities. “You can’t eliminate (school) building. That would be doing an injustice to that particular community.”

Since 2009, the legislation has been drafted and re-drafted, so that it now focuses only on hazardous vapors. The subset of sites with potential for toxic vapor is much smaller than the total number of contaminated sites in Rhode Island, according to Chambers, though the numbers are unknown.

The legislation dead-ended for two years in a row, but in 2011, new faces came on board — Sen. Juan Pichardo and Rep. Scott A. Slater, both D-Providence, who were moved to sponsor the legislation after watching a community uproar on the issue literally in their own backyards.

It wasn’t the Springfield Street schools this time, but Jorge Alvarez High School in the city’s southern Reservoir Triangle neighborhood — Slater and Pichardo’s district. Slater, a lifelong Rhode Islander and father to a 2-year-old daughter, said his constituents had begun contacting him about Alvarez, which was built in 2006 and opened in 2007 despite community outrage and a DEM lawsuit against the city.

Pichardo, meanwhile, had developed strong feelings about school siting in the Springfield days. Back then, long before winning his Senate seat, he testified before the school board when he was “just regular Juan Pichardo, activist and member of the community.”

Alvarez High School was built on remediated land that had been heavily contaminated by the Gorham Silver Manufacturing Co. The Gorham factory, later purchased by the Textron Corp., operated there for 94 years before closing in 1986. Textron has been held responsible for much of the remediation efforts, but has drawn deep criticism from the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island for its lack of transparency.

When Alvarez was built, the surrounding parcels — also part of the old Gorham property — were left unremediated. DEM’s lawsuit against the city brought a court order for increased fencing and signage between the school grounds and unremediated areas, but as recently as 2010, local residents told ecoRI News that there were gaps in the fence between Alvarez and the toxic land, and that children played there.

Alvarez, too, is equipped with monitors and sub-slab ventilation. Fischbach said the systems there are “more sophisticated” than at the Springfield schools. Despite his deep misgivings about the Springfield schools, Fischbach believes that Alvarez students are safe.

Much of the community anger over Alvarez centered on the lack of communication. Despite advocacy work, many students and their families remained unaware of the toxins literally on the other side of the fence for the first five years of the school’s operation.

This March, the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island celebrated a victory when Textron circulated a letter to Alvarez students and families, detailing the location’s history, contamination and the plans for coming remediation of neighboring parcels. Fencing and signage also have continued to improve.

“Even though it feels scary, there are engineering technologies that protect people and keep air quality safe,” said Amelia Rose, director of the Environmental Justice League, adding that she’s not currently concerned for the health of students at Alvarez.

Although the ventilation systems work, Rose and Stone said, it’s important not to continually build schools that rely on them. With ventilation systems requiring a regular inspection and upkeep for the entire lifespan of the school, the engineering solutions are costly. When schools are strapped for cash, the maintenance budget is often trimmed first, Stone said, and this worries her.

Slater and Pichardo introduced their respective school siting bills in the House and Senate last year; both bills eventually stalled because an unrelated three-year moratorium on school building made them a low priority. Also, according to Rose, “There was no one pushing for it — that’s ninety percent of the battle.” Not this year. This year she’s pushing hard.

Slater and Pichardo both acknowledged that Rose and the Environmental Justice League have been instrumental in reaching out to community members and building momentum for the bills. “You know, we (lawmakers) can’t do it alone,” Pichardo said. “You do need efforts from the community.”

While Stone avoided the question of whether the bills will pass — “you don’t know until the session is over with” — Rose is fairly confident. “I’m optimistic because it has very supportive committees and great sponsors, and no one’s against it.”

Not so. Chambers of Fuss & O’Neill has criticisms aplenty — at least for the part of the bill that deals with toxic vapors. No one, including Chambers, denies the need for transparency.

“What I like about the legislation — the half of it I do like — is you’re forced to go in front of the community and be upfront about the contamination,” Chambers said. “Do that, and (the community) is smart enough to make the right decisions.”

Award-winning model in Woonsocket
Chambers and Patrick Dowling, project manager at Fuss & O’Neill, have one key argument against the bills. After the fraught and notorious episodes of Springfield and Alvarez, a third Rhode Island school was built on highly contaminated land. Woonsocket Middle School, which Fuss & O’Neill helped build, won a brownfield renewal award in 2009.

The town of Woonsocket had no choice but to build a new school, because the old building was unsafe, according to Dowling and Chambers. Had today’s pending legislation been passed already, the new middle school site — and several alternative sites — would have been off-limits.

The Woonsocket Middle School site cost $9 million for remediation alone, but the community was informed, involved and supportive, both Chambers and Dowling said. The school’s location also was crucial — “It was the perfect location in all respects, except for the fact that it was contaminated,” Dowling said.

The town of Woonsocket at one point considered building two separate schools on cleaner sites, one on either end of town, but the busing costs alone would have come to $350,000 a year, according to Dowling. On a long timescale, the Woonsocket school, including the nearly triple redundancy of its ventilation system — in case one part of the system fails — was worth the cost, he said. He said the pending bill “is going to handcuff a lot of communities; it’s really narrowing their options.”

Chambers and Dowling also dispute the claim that maintaining and inspecting ventilation systems is too expensive. Chambers suggested that schools need only to do more long-term financial planning to afford system maintenance.

And, yes, for the last time — both men reiterated that the Springfield schools are safe. They reject the pervasive sense that something went wrong there as “that’s just who you’re talking to.”

It’s a difficult issue, and emotions run high. Nobody wants to hurt the kids. But how do you measure what’s safe, what’s affordable and what’s reasonable in a state saddled with economic stress and the burden of an industrial past?

Fischbach, for his part, said, “School construction should not be used as a brownfield remediation program.” While Fischbach didn’t question Fuss & O’Neill’s numbers, he didn’t take them as the last word. “You add in the expense of having DEM employees police it … and then there are the health costs that we are never going to be able to quantify,” he said. “The state has come to realize that this is not a good use of our resources.”

Meanwhile, on Springfield Street, the pristine buildings suddenly come to life, as children filter through the double doors in twos or threes, backpacks trailing, waiting to be picked up. It’s a wholesome scene, and if anger lingers here it is at least — like the tons of waste buried below — incalculable and invisible.