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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 TWO

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!

RECAP: Part One of this article examined the history of the controversy over the safety of the site of the former Square D plant and offices on Bingham Road, which in 1989 was acquired by the Buncombe County Board of Education for its own use. The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners recently approved the BOE’s proposal for an addition to its physical plant that would house a new STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curriculum high school and has earmarked $5.5 million for the project.

Several parties, including former BOE employees, independent watchdogs and at least one BOE member have strenuously objected to locating the STEM school on property where groundwater contamination was reported in the 1990’s and where workers in the existing building reportedly suffered severe symptoms due to inhaling polluted air inside the building. The theory was raised that the polluted air could have been caused by “vapor intrusion” created by infected groundwater. Official sources have countered that (1) the groundwater contamination issue was resolved by pumping, that monitoring is ongoing and any remaining pollutants are at trace levels only; and (2) the building’s air quality is a separate issue altogether, and that an air quality study by an independent firm found nothing amiss.

Yet, like the man upon the stair, questions about groundwater safety and air quality, jointly and separately, keep materializing, dividing the STEM school supporters (which is pretty much everybody; nobody doesn’t want a STEM school)into two camps. One side, spearheaded by county government and school system administrators, believes the issue of site safety at the proposed BOE property location has been settled beyond any reasonable doubt and that further examination is not just unnecessary but obstructive. The other side believes this has never been adequately proven and that groundwater and indoor air contamination, as a direct result, are clear and present threats to employees and future students.

The County Commission’s vote to fund construction to house the STEM school at the BOE’s Bingham Road property came this past February 18. That was a year almost to the day after the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources notified schools superintendent Tony Baldwin that its Inactive Hazardous Sites Branch had received a call from a school board member informing IHSB of plans to construct the STEM school on the property. The caller, DENR said, had expressed concern about contamination levels at the site. DENR told Baldwin that “[since] there has been a change in the planned future use of the Square D site from its previous use as an industrial facility to a space that will be occupied by students,” IHSB would need to “re-evaluate future environmental actions at this site.” (See Part One of this story in last week’s Tribune.)

DENR apparently was not aware that the Board of Education had been occupying the old Square D offices since 1989, the year before the State began requiring groundwater testing at former industrial sites. At any rate, the STEM school project was halted in its tracks while DENR began to carry out its investigation.

The caller who told DENR about the STEM project turned out to be BOE member Lisa Baldwin, who was not identified in DENR’s letter to Tony Baldwin – no relation – but who openly reported her actions in her online newsletter. As soon as the news got out that it was Lisa Baldwin –the Board’s perennial gadfly — who had dropped the dime to Raleigh, her board colleagues, other STEM supporters and most of the local media, as STEM school cheerleaders, descended on her like the wrath of God. Baldwin’s protests that she was not against the STEM project, only against locating it at the BOE site, were brushed aside.

But although Baldwin became the public face of opposition to the STEM school location, she was, as previously noted, hardly the first to express concern about the water and air quality on that hillside above the French Broad. Robert Malt, a local financial consultant and a member of Buncombe Forward, a local conservative think tank, says he noticed that “Lisa was by herself” in openly voicing opposition to the project without an unqualified clean bill of health. On his own initiative, Malt began collecting documents and personal recollections from past employees and others that showed a pattern of complaints, expressions of alarm over health issues and even suspicious deaths at the site going back as far as the 1990’s. The suspected culprit was vapor intrusion – the seepage of toxic fumes from infected groundwater into the physical plant’s HVAC system.

Joyce Metcalf of Swannanoa, now retired, worked at the BOE’s central office for more than 20 years and, according to an e-mail Malt received from a retired teacher, Metcalf had pushed for an air quality analysis during her time there because of persistent cases of sinus infection and respiratory problems among employees. In a phone interview last week, Metcalf told the Tribune she had been particularly concerned that the BOE offices (the old Square D offices) had no functioning windows whereby fresh air could be accessed. “You had this same bad air being recirculated all the time,” she said. ”There’s a hallway there that has decorative windows that can’t be opened. We were told there were plans to put more windows in that hallway that would actually open, but it never happened.” (An e-mail to Superintendent Baldwin, asking whether plans for the addition include fully functioning windows, had not been answered by press time.)

Malt’s information-gathering disclosed that at least two female employees, one only in her thirties, have died of cancer since the BOE first occupied the Square D property. No direct connection between these deaths and the building’s air quality was established, but several BOE staff were so spooked by the conviction they were working in a “sick building” that they made the connection in their own minds and redoubled calls for an air quality analysis.

The squeaky wheels eventually got some grease, though concerned parties viewed it as perfunctory. Malt received an e-mail from Lisa Baldwin enclosing a Facebook message she had received from another former BOE employee on August 21, 2012. The former employee’s message reads, in part:

“ … Many employees had a lot of sinus problems, headaches and were just ‘sick’ on a regular basis. We complained that we were in a sick building so much that they finally got some jack-leg company – or person – to run some tests. The tests amounted to nothing. … We never saw any results of the tests and were told that nothing was wrong in the building. No report was ever shown to the employees … It would have been in the late 1990’s or the year 2000 when the tests were done. We always had strange residue on filing cabinets, desks, etc. [This was also commented on by Joyce Metcalf] It looked like little balls of lint or something … I haven’t been in the building since then but there is definitely something wrong in that place and nobody seemed to take our complaints seriously. I hope answers will be found soon for the sake of those still working in that environment.”

Although the Tribune is in possession of this document, the name of the person who originally sent it has been withheld because the former employee could not be reached for further comment by press time.

In making his successful pitch to County Commission for the STEM school funds this February, Superintendent Baldwin said the school system conducted more tests than had been required by DENR and had discovered no evidence of actual environmental hazards. He pointed out that the site is served by city water, not by local wells. He stated that no soil at the site would be disturbed during the renovation process. He did not touch on the issue of vapor intrusion. He emphasized the school board’s dedication to the safety of all county students. And he pointedly cited the delay incurred by testing and urged the undertaking of the project without further delay.

“I don’t think any citizen in Buncombe County could provide any more diligence than the Buncombe County School Board has,” he was quoted as saying. “My number one mission is to do what’s right for kids. The right thing is to move on with this … we cannot afford to hold … students hostage for one more year.”

Even as he spoke, at least two social media sources were urging citizens to contact County Commissioners and ask them to reconsider allocating funds for construction at the Bingham Road site, and the Internet appeals are ongoing. The little man, it seems, is still upon the stair.

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