AshevilleCity - County Gov.News StoriesRoger McCredie

“When we get behind closed doors …”


By Roger McCredie –

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


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!

On Thursday, May 9, representatives of Schneider Electric Company (formerly Square D) and two consulting firms representing the company met privately with Buncombe County Board of Education member Lisa Baldwin and Buncombe Forward chairman Robert Malt. Also in attendance were representatives of the State Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

The closed-door meeting was the latest development in the ongoing and often bitter argument over contamination at the old Square D plant site. It was organized by Bryce Wenland, a national safety officer for Schneider Electric, who invited Baldwin and Malt to meet face to face and “provide [them] with an opportunity to have [their] questions answered and concerns addressed by Schneider Electric.” The meeting “was not intended for other parties or the media; no recording devices are to be used,” Schneider stipulated in an e-mail obtained by the Asheville Tribune.

Baldwin, Malt and others have spearheaded an investigation, now in its second year, into the safety of the old Square D property on Bingham Road, which was purchased from Square D in 1989 and presently houses the BOE administrative offices. The County Commission recently allocated $5.5 million for renovations and additions at the property to accommodate a new STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Mathematics)

high school. Soon after the Square D property was purchased, evidence of industrial chemical contamination was discovered at the site and several employees in the building became chronically ill, possibly as a result of vapor intrusion into the building from gases released by these chemicals from the water table through the soil and into the building.

Square D/Schneider moved its facilities further uphill on Bingham Road after selling its old quarters to the BOE, and has its own groundwater and air quality safety monitoring protocol in place. Last Thursday’s meeting marked the first time the company had become directly involved in the controversy surrounding its old digs. According to meeting attendees, what emerged from the exchange was a confirmation of previous studies showing that remedial action at the BOE property has not completely eliminated hazardous waste levels in the soil and water, but has reduced them substantially.

This, however, did little to satisfy Baldwin and Malt, who pointed out that the latest chemical analysis is only “a snapshot” and that to insure site safety a monitoring program will need to be ongoing – a complicated and expensive proposition. Following the meeting Bruce Parris, an environmental supervisor with DENR’s Inactive Hazardous Waste Sites branch, commented that if ongoing monitoring at the BOE offices should reveal a spike in chemical levels, “some sort of mitigation [remedial action] and more detailed monitoring would need to be undertaken.” Sources inside the meeting said the consensus was that the “plume” of contaminants apparently had originated from the parcel known as 128 Bingham Road – the southernmost part of the Square D property now occupied by ACS Business Park – then migrated uphill to the current BOE plat, known as 175 Bingham Road, and continues to move uphill to the north.

“Schneider Electric apparently takes this situation seriously enough that it spent several thousand dollars to bring consultants in from Illinois and Canada, and the DENR in from Mooresville, to talk about it in private,” Malt said later. However, in an e-mail to the Tribune, Michelle Redfield, Schneider’s Director of Environment and Process Improvement and an attendee of the meeting, reiterated that Schneider “did not operate at [the former Square D properties], nor does it currently own or operate any facilities at these locations … Schneider is committed to protecting human health.”

Redfield’s e-mail disclosed that the Schneider and DENR personnel also met last Thursday with representatives of the ACS Business Park management team, as well as with members of the Board of Education staff. The BOE meeting apparently took place following the meeting with Baldwin and Malt, as both county schools Superintendent Tony Baldwin and BOE Public Information Officer Jan Blunt arrived and entered the conference room at that time. It was not clear why three separate meetings were conducted, or why the media were excluded. Redfield also did not mention why, if Schneider disavowed any responsibility for past, present or future conditions at the previous Square D sites, it had organized the meetings in the first place.

Meanwhile, amidst the charges, countercharges and bloody infighting that have swirled around the choice of location for the STEM school, a question that some say has been asked but never answered has resurfaced: Why not just locate the school somewhere else? If, like the ghostly man on the stair in the poem, the issue of site contamination keeps appearing, why not just move out of the haunted house?

In a February letter to the Tribune editor shortly before County Commission voted to fund the school at the BOE site, reader Patsy Wright Gardin said, “No other options were researched. Could we re-purpose an under-enrolled school? We have … over 5,000 empty seats in our schools and a five-year decline in enrollment. [Or] why not put [the STEM school] in a nearby college campus as other school districts do? A Science and Math School satellite has been mentioned, but where is the follow through? What about virtual classrooms?” Wright asked.

“We have other options for the STEM high school location besides the central office,” Lisa Baldwin stated in the April 24 edition of her online newsletter, “Buncombe Students First.” She echoed the decline-in-enrollment argument and put the number of empty classroom seats at 6,000 instead of 5,000. Baldwin, who has been castigated by her critics for comparing Buncombe with Wake County schools, nevertheless cited Wake’s STEM school, which is housed at North Carolina State University, and wondered if a similar arrangement with UNC-Asheville could be effected. She, like Wright, also posited locating the STEM school at an under-enrolled facility such as Woodfin Elementary.

According to Malt, the Woodfin Elementary possibility was floated last year by now-retired Black Mountain Elementary Principal Jerry Green, along with others who saw such a move as the most obvious solution.

“At the end of the day,” said Malt, “You have to ask yourself ‘why.’ Why are they [the school board] so hell-bent on putting a school that everybody wants in a place that’s even remotely hazardous? How was that decision [to build at the BOE office] made in the first place? Why run roughshod over all opposition to it? Why ignore all other possibilities?

“Even if anybody raised the relocation question now,” Malt continued, “they’d surely get told it’s out of the question, we’ve spent all this money already on plans, testing, proposals and so forth. We can’t stop now; we’ve already gone to all this expense.”

According to Lisa Baldwin’s newsletter, there’s expense … and there’s expense. “The liability risk should be considered,’ it says. “Just one or two perceived injuries … could be financially devastating.”

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