Testing, Testing

July 16, 1992

What's wrong with this picture?

A work crew gets nauseous after drilling into the ground to prepare a site for a new school. School officials run tests and conclude the site is safe, but want to test once more just to be safe. Parents say enough with the tests, build the blessed school already.

The more common scenario would be parents contending that bureaucrats were imprudently rushing the job, but the roles have been reversed in Harford County's Riverside community.

Riverside is booming, near a new interchange off Interstate 95, between Bel Air and Aberdeen. President Bush toured the community last winter after his handlers deemed it the quintessential community in which to unveil affordable housing legislation. Many of these new residents anxiously await a new school. Children from the community are now bused a few miles away to crowded elementary classrooms in Abingdon.

Thus, parents are understandably concerned that construction hasn't even started for a school they have been promised will open in September, 1993. A contractor won't be selected until mid-August. To open on schedule, the job would have to break the county record of 14 months for building an elementary school.

The proposed school location has a less-than-pristine history. Nearby is the former Bata shoe factory that released its industrial water waste into "latex lagoons." The school land had been cleaned, tested and judged safe years after the plant closed. When workers got sick while doing routine digging to prepare the site six months ago, however, concern about the property resurfaced.

Two subsequent tests found minute amounts of toulene, a chemical found in gasoline. The levels were far too low to demand remedial action, but school officials have commissioned third test anyway and plan special venting systems for the school and parking lot site, under which the toulene was found, ** to ensure safety.

Harford school officials may be gun-shy because they're still contending with problems at another county elementary that was built with such poor ventilation that mildew and spores formed inside the school, destroying some library books, on the first humid day. Things might have gone a little more calmly in Riverside had the school system kept the community better informed, especially since residents are still unsure of the consequences should this third test bear bad news.

Yet you can't fault Harford education officials for exercising prudence. The cost and concerns involved in fixing a school built a sick site would be immense.

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