Hanes Lowrance Middle School (photo by Caleb Smallwood)
Hanes Lowrance Middle School (photo by Caleb Smallwood)

by Jordan Green

An environmental contamination expert who consulted with locals after toxic chemicals were found beneath a Winston-Salem middle school says the school board’s decision to close the school was unwarranted.

Parents of Hanes Lowrance Middle School students were angry when Lenny Siegel, a national expert on environmental hazards, addressed them at SciWorks on a Monday night in early February.

Weeks earlier, they had learned from a newspaper exposé that the ground beneath the school was contaminated with tetrachloroethylene, or PCE, that can cause damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system. The chemical had migrated in the groundwater from the Kaba Ilco Corp. plant on Indiana Avenue on the city’s north side.

The parents were furious that they hadn’t learned about the contamination earlier from school administration. Siegel empathized with their betrayed trust, but urged them to put aside their anger and look at the scientific evidence. A new round of testing by the school district was underway that would remove potential indoor sources of contamination that might trigger false positive readings.

“If you’re serious in trying to protect people, that’s what you need to do,” Siegel said. “Belatedly, I think that’s what’s finally happening here, but at a cost of the community losing trust in the entity that was responsible for protecting them. What I’m hoping is that you can set aside the injury that you suffered by not being informed and still try to make an informed decision about what you think needs to be done.”

Siegel is the executive director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, based in Mountain View, Calif. Siegel said that while he is not a scientist, he specializes in translating science into terms that are understandable to ordinary citizens.

Earlier in the day, Siegel had fielded questions from members of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board during a special meeting at Atkins High School. Paramount: Should they go ahead and close Hanes Lowrance Middle School?

“The risk of PCE, the principal contaminant at the site, is gauged by standards that are based on 30 years exposure, 24/7,” Siegel told the school board. “Based on the science, I don’t think there’s any reason to panic. There’s a need to address the problem, but I don’t think there’s a need necessarily to pull kids out of school or close the school right away.”

The next day the school board voted 7-2 to close the school.

Siegel said recently he was surprised that the district opted to close Hanes Lowrance.

“Why in an area [of the country] that does not seem to be particularly environmentally sensitive, did they close a school without waiting for the test results to come back?” he asked.

Siegel, who is based in the Silicon Valley area of northern California, cited a contrasting example of four schools in Sunnyvale with exposure to TCE.

“TCE is worse than PCE,” he said. “TCE is considered more of a risk right now. EPA studies say TCE can cause birth defects. With exposure to PCE, you have to protect against long-term exposure; with exposure to TCE during pregnancy you have to worry about peak exposure. The community hasn’t panicked. They didn’t close the schools.”

While some of Siegel’s comments during his February visit were critical of how the school district handled keeping parents informed, he never said the district should close the school. He said recently that the only thing that could possibly have given parents that impression were comments he made that state and federal standards are politicized by industry pressure, which makes it difficult to assess acceptable risk.

Hanes Lowrance was by no means unique in Winston-Salem in being exposed to legacy industrial contamination. Carter G. Woodson School, a charter school founded by a former member of the Black Panther Party that predominantly serves low-income black and Latino students, discovered concentrations of PCE and another chemical, trichloroethylene, known as TCE, that exceeded screening levels set by the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources, or DENR, in May 2013. The school is located in southeast Winston-Salem, an area with a similar socioeconomic demographic and industrial background as the neighborhood surrounding Hanes Lowrance.

Carter G. Woodson School hired Mid-Atlantic Associates to conduct indoor air quality tests. After similar problems came to light at Hanes Lowrance Middle School, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools hired the same firm to conduct indoor air quality tests there. In November 2013, administration at Carter G. Woodson School sent out letters to parents informing them of the potential environmental hazards and the school’s efforts to remediate the problem. There was no panic, public outcry or threats by parents to pull their children out of school. In January 2014, results came back showing no exceedences of indoor air levels of PCE and TCE.

Elevated levels of PCE have also been found at a decommissioned gas station identified as an inactive hazardous site by DENR that is less than a quarter mile from a complex in East Winston housing Kennedy High School, Carter High School and the Career Center. When the owner of the gas station said his company was not responsible for the contamination, a DENR official told Triad City Beat last spring that the agency dropped the case. Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Chief of Staff Theo Helm said at the time that the district was unaware that PCE had been identified at the site.

When indoor air quality test results came back for Hanes Lowrance Middle School a couple weeks after school’s closure, like Carter G. Woodson, they showed that the air was safe for students and faculty.

Siegel met with school board member Elisabeth Motsinger, a Democrat who represents the district at large, during a recent visit to North Carolina to attend a wedding. Motsinger was one of two board members who voted against the closure of Hanes Lowrance. Siegel asked Motsinger why she thought the decision was made.

“Her judgment is that it was racial,” Siegel said. “There were some people who triggered the outrage because they didn’t want their kids going to school in that neighborhood. Being from California, I’m inclined to believe the worst about the South, but it seems plausible to me.”

Acknowledging the sensitivity of race, Motsinger said the dynamics of having a magnet program that attracts students from more affluent families on the same campus with a predominantly black neighborhood school shaped the public discourse.

“It is areas where people of color live and where poor people live that are the areas of contamination,” she said. “So you go into the quote ‘pure’ suburbs, and you won’t find these problems. I think on a deeply felt level that’s what the parents of the [highly academically gifted] program at Hanes Lowrance discovered. It was the first time they had come face to face with the understanding that an environmental issue was going to affect their children. It was terrifying for them — understandably. Their reaction is: Let’s get away from here. And there’s nowhere to run.”

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