Legacy industrial contamination in urban Winston-Salem

Carter G. Woodson Charter School opened in 1997. Hazel Mack, the school’s founder, is a former member of the Winston-Salem chapter of the Black Panther Party and an attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina. She received the Julian T. Pierce Award for her efforts to defend low-income families from mortgage foreclosure and to restore subsidized housing for victims of Hurricane Floyd in eastern North Carolina.

About 60 percent of the school’s students are black and about 40 percent are Latino. More than 87 percent participate in the federal free- and reduced-lunch program, according to the school’s website, which also reported the school’s enrollment at 450 for the 2011-2012 school year.

In 2006, the school purchased additional property, where the middle school is now located. The site was originally developed as a cotton mill, Carol Jones Van Buren, a Charlotte lawyer representing the school with Harris, wrote to the state Division of Waste Management. Van Buren said the mill operated as Arista Mills and Southside Cotton Mill from 1895 through the 1960s. From 1970 to 1988, she said, Western Electric and AT&T used the old mill building to manufacture circuit boards, using a degreaser containing PCE and other chemicals.

Harris said when the school purchased the property no information about the contaminants was available.

The Division of Waste Management has requested that New Jersey-based Alcatel-Lucent USA, the corporate successor to AT&T, conduct a remedial investigation of the site under the supervision of the division’s inactive hazardous sites branch. Amy Axon, a state hydrologist, noted in a Feb. 16 letter to the corporation that DENR “has determined that there has been a release of a hazardous substance into the environment at the site,” adding that sample results “indicate there is groundwater contamination” above state standards, and “sub-slab soil gas under the Carter G. Woodson Middle School is above soil gas screening levels.”

Harris said he interprets the letter to Alcatel-Lucent USA as saying, “You caused it; what are you going to do to fix it?” He added, “The folks who caused it ought to be writing checks.”

A public school closes, while a charter school forges ahead

Similar to Carter G. Woodson Middle School, testing sample results collected by Mid-Atlantic Associates at Hanes and Lowrance middle schools indicated no exceedences of state standards for indoor-air quality. The district has cited a 2006 email from then Forsyth County Public Health Director Timothy C. Monroe to explain why previous indoor-air samples exceeded acceptable levels for PCE and TCE. Monroe wrote that elevated levels found in an industrial arts classroom at Hanes Middle School “resolved” with the removal of chemicals that had been found in a storage closet, and another exceedence in the music room at Hanes was found to be caused by carpet adhesive that was “off-gassing aromatic compounds.”

The school board voted 7-2 on Feb. 10 to move students out of Hanes and Lowrance middle schools, with Democrat Elisabeth Motsinger and Republican David Singletary casting the dissenting votes.

Motsinger said she believes her fellow board members who voted to move the students off the site were swayed by parents holding their children out of school.

“As an elected person I have to be a good steward of the financial resources we’re given to work with,” she said. “In a time and place where we are struggling to afford primary-reading teachers and where we don’t buy books for our kids and we have children who are at real risk of not learning to read, not graduating from high school and not being successful adults, my interests after real safety concerns are addressed is making sure our resources are directed towards instruction so our children get every opportunity to learn. The resources that were spent moving these children are resources that will not be going to instruction.”

The now shuttered Hanes and Lowrance middle schools are located across Indiana Avenue from Kaba Ilco, one of the 90 sites listed on the state Division of Waste Management’s list of inactive hazardous sites. Carter G. Woodson Charter School is different. Along with another charter school, the Downtown Middle School, Carter G. Woodson is on the list of inactive hazardous sites itself. The Downtown Middle School closed in 2013 because of financial challenges.

“The testing will continue as required by the environmental experts at DENR to make sure the kids are fine at all times,” said David Harris, general counsel for the Carter G. Woodson Charter School. “The parents will stay informed.”

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