Contaminants discovered underneath Winston-Salem charter school

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photo by Caleb Smallwood

by Jordan Green

As the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board votes to close Hanes and Lowrance middle schools because of environmental contamination, the same chemicals that caused concern are also found in groundwater underneath Carter G. Woodson Middle School, a Winston-Salem charter school.

The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board voted last month to close Hanes and Lowrance middle schools because of concerns about underground contaminants from a toxic plume originating at an industrial site across the street.

But Hanes and Lowrance middle schools are not the only Winston-Salem schools dealing with contamination from legacy industrial sites: While conducting routine environmental assessments required for refinancing, the board of directors of Carter G. Woodson Charter School discovered groundwater concentrations of tetrachloroethylene, or PCE, and trichloroethylene, or TCE, that exceeded screening levels set by the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Those same chemicals were discovered at Hanes and Lowrance middle schools. Like Hanes and Lowrance middle schools, Carter G. Woodson Charter School, a K-12 facility, is hooked up to city water, and students and staff are not exposed to groundwater contaminants.

“We have been dealing with DENR and that for a few months,” said Hazel Mack, founder of the charter school. “Our board is well aware of it and our parents are well aware of it. Our parents have received letters. We did inspections. All of the inspections determined there was no harm to the students.”

Indoor air sampling conducted in the middle school building at the charter school found no exceedences of residential indoor-air screening levels for PCE and TCE, according to a report submitted by Mid-Atlantic Associates in January. Mid-Atlantic is the same firm that completed a recent round of testing at Hanes and Lowrance middle schools for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.

Exposure to PCE can cause damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system.

Mid-Atlantic also reported that they found no contamination of surface soil below Carter G. Woodson Charter School. Testing did reveal levels of arsenic, a natural occurring metal, that exceeded the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources, or DENR’s residential “soil remediation goals.” However, arsenic concentrations in background soil samples taken as a control were higher, indicating that the arsenic is naturally occurring. Testing also detected PCE levels exceeding state standards in surface water in Parkway Branch, a creek that runs along the eastern and southern borders of the school property.

Carter G. Woodson Charter School (photo by Caleb Smallwood)
Carter G. Woodson Charter School (photo by Caleb Smallwood)

David Harris, a lawyer in Durham who is serving as general counsel for the charter school, said the middle school is the only building affected on the campus.

“It’s subsurface groundwater, but it has not percolated to the soil to create any problems with respect to the indoor air of the middle school,” he said. “We tested it back in August. We tested it again this past December. We also did two tests of the topsoil and used top-of-the-line environmental firms.”

Mack said the environmental problems at the school came to light at the end of the last school. Early assessments were conducted by Hart & Hickman and EI Group in May and June respectively. And Mid-Atlantic Associates initiated air and soil sampling in July. By Aug. 7, Harris said, the school had preliminary results showing the indoor air was safe.

The school was accepted into the state of North Carolina’s brownfields program in early September, Harris said. Under the program, the NC Division of Waste Management agrees to limit the school’s liability, easing financing, in exchange for the school’s agreement to clean up the site.

Harris said the school’s efforts to get accepted into the brownfields program accounted for the delay in sending letters to parents to notify them of potential environmental hazards. Letters from the school did not go out until Nov. 7 — well into the academic year.

“I think the bottom line is we did not know at the time,” Harris said. “The way the process works is we had to get into the program first. Getting into the brownfields program was the first priority — no, it’s the second priority; the first was determining that the school was safe for the kids.”