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How safe is it to build a STEM School at the Board of Education site?

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By Roger McCredie –

Part One

The man upon the stair

Yesterday upon the stair

I met a man who wasn’t there.

He wasn’t there again today.

Oh, how I wish he’d go away!

Is the groundwater at the Buncombe County Board of Education’s property in Bingham Heights contaminated?  If so, how contaminated?  And as long as any reasonable concerns about the site’s safety remain, is it prudent for the County to invest $4 million in additional construction there to house a showcase-curriculum school?

The safety question is like the ghost on the stair.  There are those who argue passionately that it’s there and even offer evidence of its existence.  There are others, including a majority of the BOE and County Commission, who offer counter-evidence  that it’s not; that anyway there’s no such thing as ghosts – well, not this particular one anyway – and that those who believe otherwise are standing in the way of progress.

View Full PDF of School Board Property Here

In 1890, when the purity of its groundwater was not in question (or at any rate was not an issue) Asheville incomer and benefactor George Willis Pack sold a substantial tract of land in Hazel Township, on a hillside above the French Broad, to his friend “Colonel” Robert Bingham for the establishment of Bingham Military Academy.  Bingham died in 1927 and the school closed its doors in 1928.  The Bingham children subsequently parceled off and sold the campus property; in 1952 one parcel, designated as 128 Bingham Road, was acquired by Gorham Silver Company, which operated a manufacturing plant there before selling it to Square D Company, a manufacturer of electrical boards and switches, in 1960.  Square D also purchased a second plat, designated as 175 Bingham Road.

Square D used the premises until 1989, when it moved most of its facilities to 200 Bingham Road, on the plateau at the top of the hill, the northernmost parcel in the subdivided Bingham campus tract.  The company also sold its old executive offices to the Buncombe County Board of Education.  (In 1991 Square D was acquired by Schneider Electric and consolidated the rest of its operations on top of the hill.)

Meanwhile, in 1990, the State of North Carolina began requiring groundwater inspections at existing and former industrial sites – the sale of the Square D offices to the BOE had slid in under the wire; a year later and the inspection would have been mandatory before the transfer of property could have been consummated.  That same year Square D reported a leaking above-ground oil tank at its old location.  According to site documents, it was evident that during Square D’s occupation, detectable quantities of trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE) had leached into the groundwater on the property.   The sources of contamination were identified as an area where 55-gallon drums of these two chemicals had been stored for many years, and a storm sewer near the building itself,  One report called this storm drain “substandard.”

Meanwhile, Champion Products, whose plant lies to the northwest of the Square D property, had been contending with similar groundwater pollution risks and had hired a team of consultants to evaluate conditions there.  The Champion consultants’ report noted “plumes” of both PCE and TCE emitting from the northeast corner of the old Square D property.  Also, the report said, PCE was to be found “in the bedrock … originating on the western portion of the Square D property.”

The location of these two pollution sites on what was now the BOE’s property raised the immediate concern of “vapor intrusion,” a term which is perhaps unique in bureaucratese, in that it means exactly what it says:  the seeping of toxic fumes into the buildings themselves.  This set off warning bells at the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources and, according to its summary, “Remedial (cleanup) actions, including pumping and treating groundwater, have been ongoing since 1994.  Groundwater monitoring has also been conducted regularly since the early 1990’s.”

So the years passed, the pumps pumped, and groundwater, according to DENR, continued to be monitored regularly.  And inside the old Square D offices, the day-to-day task of running Buncombe County’s schools hummed along without incident.

Unless you count the fact that people were getting sick.

First hand accounts of past employees reveal that there were ongoing health problems among them, ranging from chronic sinus trouble to headaches and flu-like symptoms.  At least two previously healthy employees contracted cancer; one later died.  Coincidence?  Possibly.  But several employees were spooked enough to declare that they were working in “a sick building.”  According to one employee, in response to continuing employee concerns, BOE hired a firm to conduct a cursory air quality test inside the building, but that results of the test were not made available to staff, other than the testers found nothing wrong with the air they were breathing.

In 2008 there was a reshuffling at DENR in Raleigh.  It was decreed that the monitoring of the groundwater at the BOE property would henceforth be assigned to the Division of Waste Management’s Inactive Hazardous Sites Branch (IHSB).  In turn, IHSB wrote to Schneider Electric/Square D (up the hill) “requesting,” according to a DENR information summary, “that [Schneider] continue with assessment and remediation in the IHSB’s privatized remediation program or Registered Environmental Consultant (REC) program.  (In other words, oversight previously performed by DENR itself had now been turned over to another department, who would in turn assign it to a privately-operated subsidiary or to a firm on a list of approved consultants.)

Fast forward to late 2011.

It was then that the idea was floated to revamp the BOE’s Career Technical Education Center, effectively replacing it with a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) high school, designed to offer  students a state-of-the-art curriculum to make them “career and college ready.”  It was an exciting concept, and a large committee of BOE members, the Chamber of Commerce, and the higher education and industrial sectors signed off on a plan to obtain funding and proceed to develop the school – which would be located in an addition to the existing BOE headquarters, right there on Bingham Road.

Well, most committee members signed off on the idea, anyway.

On February 8, 2012, DENR wrote to Superintendent of Schools Tony Baldwin, informing him that they had received a phone call from a member of the school board expressing concerns about the possibility of soil and groundwater contamination at the BOE site.  This prompted DENR to notify Baldwin that having students on the property would put a new light on things, and that “it will be necessary for IHSB to re-evaluate future environmental actions at this site … “  DENR went on to say that they had already begun a preliminary investigation which revealed “documented contamination nearby” and that files for the Champion and old Square D properties were now under review.  The letter concluded by asking for information “on the terms under which BCBOE acquired the former Square D property.”

And just like that, there appeared the little man upon the stair.

In the next installment: Who dropped the dime to DENR, what’s been happening since, some first-hand accounts, comments from sources who have tracked this story, and the BOE’s and County Commission’s take on it.

By one of fate’s little quirks, Tribune investigative journalist Roger McCredie’s great-great aunt was married to Col. Robert Bingham at the time Bingham Military Academy was in operation.

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