Tests find high level of metals at school

Officials say soil around Worthington Elementary is safe

January 24, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Despite school system assurances that the soil around Worthington Elementary School is safe, tests taken Dec. 19 show relatively high levels of toxic metals in the ground around the Ellicott City school, which was built 25 years ago atop a landfill.

Parents and Howard County school officials are waiting for analysis of the test results to determine whether levels are high enough to cause concern.

Sydney L. Cousin, the school system's chief operating officer, said an analysis should be available in a week to 10 days. Until that report returns from the Department of Public Works, Cousin said, system officials aren't particularly alarmed.

High levels "don't mean anything unless we know what that really means," he said. "Is it a danger to students or staff or the community? Right now, they're telling us there is no danger."

John O'Hara, chief of the county Bureau of Environmental Services, a division of the Public Works Department, said the agency's preliminary analysis of the latest tests found no higher concentrations of the metals than occurs naturally in this area.

Four metals - aluminum, iron, vanadium and arsenic - exceeded minimum state cleanup guidelines, and the department's consultant is preparing a "risk analysis" of what danger each might pose.

"We [took] the particularly conservative" tack of asking for further review, O'Hara said.

Independent expert

In addition to the county assessment, Worthington parents are paying for a review by an independent expert.

Tests of soil around the school conducted by the county's consultants in August found higher-than-normal levels of potentially toxic materials such as arsenic, mercury and vanadium, with metals such as iron and aluminum.

Those levels led the consultants to recommend last month's testing.

Members of the Worthington grass-roots advocacy group Parents for Safe Schools have remained calm about the uncertainty raised by the first readings of high metal levels.

"I wasn't surprised," said President Carol McKissick. "I figured it was more likely that that would happen than everything coming back saying everything's hunky-dory."

But a heightened sense of concern was evident.

"These are kids," McKissick said. "They have a tendency to put their hands about their face and mouth."

The investigation began in fall 2000, when parents of Worthington pupils became concerned about its location.

The school board had been considering placing a new elementary school - the county's 38th - on the other side of the former landfill.

In testing that site, engineers hired by the school district found potentially dangerous levels of methane gas and other volatile chemicals, raising questions about the safety of Worthington pupils.

School officials assured parents that Worthington was safe, detailing measures they had taken to ensure that no gas would harm pupils.

Worthington Elementary was built on Round Hill Road in Ellicott City in 1976, when the landfill was operating. Since then, the county Public Works Department has closed and capped the landfill and brought the property up to environmental safety codes.

Methane gas detectors and monitoring and capturing systems have been installed in and around the school as safety measures, school officials said.

The school board hired a consultant to test air and ground water around the building. In front of an auditorium full of parents, the consultant gave the school a clean bill of health.

Worried parents

But parents still worried.

Members of Parents for Safe Schools pooled their money and hired a consultant.

"The concern here was that the dump was an open landfill and they burned heaven knows what there for the better part of 35, 40 years," McKissick said. "And, of course when you do that, you get residue."

McKissick said the group was frustrated that most testing had been conducted in or near the landfill, or focused on the air or ground water.

"The landfill wasn't our primary concern," she said. "Our primary concern was the school."

O'Hara of the county's Bureau of Environmental Services said metal levels in soil around the school weren't elevated because of the landfill and no cause for alarm was found.

"They were all present to some degree," he said. "It appears to us that the concentrations are naturally occurring."

Sun staff writer Larry Carson contributed to this article.

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