School district missed potential contamination near Kennedy High

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Hanes-Lowrance Middle School (photo by Caleb Smallwood)

by Jordan Green

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools scrambled to notify parents and staff of potential environmental contamination following a public firestorm over Hanes-Lowrance Middle School, but missed a polluted site two blocks away from three schools. NC DENR dropped the case due to lack of information and resources. The school district, in turn, is relying on DENR’s professional judgment to determine whether the schools are safe.

In the aftermath of an explosive report on environmental contamination in January that ultimately resulted in Hanes-Lowrance Middle School being closed down, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools undertook a district-wide survey of environmental contamination.

Assistant Superintendent Darrell Walker reported to the school board during a special meeting on Feb. 3 that in addition to Hanes-Lowrance, three other schools have had underground contaminants that have been monitored by the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, or DENR, at one time or another: Kennedy High School in Winston-Salem, Old Richmond Elementary in Tobaccoville and Kernersville Elementary.

The Division of Waste Management’s Superfund Section at DENR lists 91 inactive hazardous sites in Winston-Salem, and 16 additional sites in other parts of Forsyth County. The industrial backbone of the city around the north, east and southeast fringes of downtown holds a particularly high concentration of sites, defined by DENR as “areas where hazardous substances have come to be located” and where cleanup has been inactive for some time.

Twelve public schools in Winston-Salem are located within a half-mile of contaminated sites on DENR’s list of inactive hazardous locations, from sources ranging from Reynolds Tobacco Co. to Douglas Battery Manufacturing. The industrial legacy of Forsyth County extends well beyond the municipal borders of Winston-Salem. Electronics manufacturer AMP — since acquired by Tyco Electronics — is responsible for two sites each in Winston-Salem and Clemmons and an additional site in Kernersville. DENR maintains 11 monitoring wells on the campus of Kernersville Elementary, which is adjacent to one of the AMP facilities.

“When the companies that disposed of solvents in the dirt did so in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, nobody knew the damage they were going to cause,” said Elisabeth Motsinger, a member of the school board. “And one of the reasons we all should support regulations and agencies like North Carolina DENR and the EPA is because we all share the air, the dirt and the water, and we should be interested in protecting that for future generations. Right now we have to live with some of these consequences and we have to use good scientific reason. If I thought for a minute there was danger I wouldn’t keep any of these schools open.”

Motsinger was one of only two school board members who voted against moving students out of Hanes-Lowrance Middle School in early February. Testing by Mid-Atlantic Associates ultimately found no exceedences for indoor air quality standards.

David Singletary, the other school board member who voted against moving students out of Hanes-Lowrance Middle School, said that based on the test results at one school he’s confident that students across the district are safe.

“We got a situation where we got a school that wasn’t presenting a risk,” Singletary said. “I believe that’s going to be consistent with our other school sites as well.”

In the wake of the public-relations black eye received from extensive media coverage of the presence of contaminants in the groundwater below Hanes-Lowrance, the district sent out letters to parents and staff at several schools to reassure them that their children are safe. Some of the letters followed a general template, while others contained information specific to the site.

The letter sent out with the signature of Kernersville Elementary Principal Becky Carter on Feb. 3, stated, “The contaminants are in groundwater many feet below the surface; they are not near the ground where we walk or play. They do not affect our drinking water, which comes from the public water system.” The letter went on to say that traces of trichloroethene, or TCE, were found in concentrations below EPA standards in two of the monitoring wells.

In a letter sent out on the same day under the signature of Principal Brian Brookshire, the district informed parents at Old Richmond Elementary in Tobaccoville that at one point an underground storage tank leaked petroleum into the earth. The leak was repaired and the contaminants were cleaned up, and DENR closed a monitoring well in 2012 after determining that the site was remediated, according to the district.

A partial review by Triad City Beat of inactive hazardous sites listed by the state Division of Solid Waste’s Superfund Branch identified 14 schools in Winston-Salem that are within a half-mile of contaminated sites.

In contrast to some schools in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools that are located near or adjacent two contaminated sites, two charter schools are actually included on the list of inactive hazardous sites. The Downtown Middle School on South Liberty Street closed in 2013 for financial reasons. Elevated levels of tetrachloroethene, or PCE, and trichloroethene, or TCE, in elevated levels were found in the groundwater below Carter G. Woodson Middle School but testing revealed that the air was safe to breathe. The school continues to monitor the groundwater. Exposure to PCE has been linked to damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system.

Fairway One Stop No. 5, an abandoned gas station on the state’s inactive hazardous sites list, is located less than a quarter of a mile from Kennedy High School, Carter High School and the Career Center, which share a campus in East Winston. But Theo Helm, chief of staff for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, said district officials had not been aware of it prior to Triad City Beat bringing it to their attention.

A letter the district sent to parents and staff at the three schools cited an entirely separate source of potential contaminants.

“You may be aware that the parking lot across 11th Street nearest US 52 sits on what used to be the site of the Merita Bread Company,” the letter reads. “The site has been evaluated by [DENR] because it contains petroleum in the ground. At this point, the district is using the site as a parking lot and not using the groundwater underneath it.”

One block to the north, ongoing monitoring from an oil spill discovered when five underground storage tanks were removed from the Fairway One Stop No. 5 stop revealed further problems. Tetrachloroethene, or PCE, and other chemicals were found at elevated levels during testing in May 2010.

SM&E, an environmental consulting firm that assessed the site, noted in a July 2010 report to JP&D Financial, the Greensboro company that owns the property, that tetrachloroethene  “is not a petroleum-related compound and, therefore, should not be attributed to a release from the underground storage tanks at the subject site.” The report went on to say that there were several nearby sites contaminated with tetrachloroethene, and detection of the chemical at Fairway One Stop No. 5 “may be attributable to migrating groundwater onto the subject property.”

JP&D Financial received a notice of regulatory requirements for contaminant assessment and cleanup from DENR in May 2011. Collin Day, a hydrogeologist with the agency, notified the company that regulatory oversight would be provided by the Division of Waste Management through the Superfund Section, Inactive Hazardous Sites Branch. Day warned that if the company failed to take action, the agency might “prioritize the site without your input” and that the company could face civil penalties.

A review by Triad City Beat of public documentation associated with the site indicated that there was no further communication between the company and the regulatory agency.

Qu Qi, the inactive hazardous sites branch supervisor for the central region, said the agency deemed the site to be a low priority. Unable to determine the source of the contamination and lacking resources to investigate, they essentially walked away.

“They found some low concentrations of perc [tetrachloroethene],” Qi said. “We sent them a written notice based on our regulatory requirements. They turned around and said, ‘No, it’s not from us, thank you, goodbye.’

“If there is a responsible party we will go after the responsible party,” he added. “If the responsible party is not around, then we have very limited resources to do some kind of investigation. We get $400,000 from the state every year for this kind of thing.”

Theo Helm, the chief of staff at Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, said the district relies on DENR to ensure that the schools are safe from environmental hazards. Even with recent blows to the agency’s credibility, notably its failure to prevent Duke Energy’s coal-ash spill on the Dan River last year, Helm said he trusts DENR’s judgment.

“We are not experts in environmental matters and so we rely on those who are,” he said. “I think we do everything we can to keep our students safe, and we work with DENR and the [county] health department and we have to rely on the experts in the field.”