Action urged on metals at school

Worthington parents want soil covered

February 07, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

A group of Ellicott City parents is demanding that Howard County officials immediately "cap" the soil around Worthington Elementary School to protect pupils from contamination - and begin an extensive round of testing inside the 26-year-old building.

Parents for Safe Schools - a grass-roots advocacy group of parents and community members from Worthington neighborhoods - hired a consultant to review testing of the school's soil completed last year by the county's Department of Public Works.

The consultant, Quality Environmental Solutions Inc. of Annapolis, determined that levels of metals in the ground around the school were high enough to cause concern. Four metals - aluminum, iron, vanadium, mercury, and also arsenic - exceeded minimum state cleanup guidelines in one or both sets of tests completed in August and December.

Consultant Don Jones told parents the best solution would be to "cap" the soil - cover existing soil with new, clean soil.

"That I believe was the preferred option, because it would eliminate the risk immediately," Jones said.

But John O'Hara, chief of the county Bureau of Environmental Services, a division of the Department of Public Works, said the county has completed a "risk analysis" of its consultant's report and determined that no danger exists to pupils or adults at Worthington.

"We don't feel that any additional work is necessary at the site," either inside or outside the building, O'Hara said.

Sydney L. Cousin, the school system's chief operating officer, said he planned to meet with O'Hara to discuss the department's analysis.

"If their recommendation is to do that [cap the soil] then we will carry out the recommendations they bring forward," Cousin said. "I don't want to come up with a solution before I understand what the real problem is."

Parents in the advocacy group say the answer is simple.

"While their risk assessment says there's no danger, we as parents don't feel comfortable letting our children play in the soil there when we know there are heavy metals there," said Diane Goodridge, Parents for Safe Schools secretary. "And we'd just rather err on the conservative side of doing what's best for the health of our kids."

The testing was agreed to because engineers hired by the school district found potentially dangerous levels of methane and other volatile chemicals at a proposed school site near Worthington - adjacent to the former New Cut Landfill. Officials said Worthington, which was built on top of the landfill, is safe, but parents still were concerned.

Goodridge said that group members are confused because the parents and the Department of Public Works initially agreed - before any testing had been started - to use the Maryland State Clean-up Guidelines as a benchmark to determine risk.

But she said public works officials have taken the results of the study - which clearly showed metal levels exceeding the state standards - and have plugged them into a complicated mathematical formula that they say proves the soil is safe.

"There is no dispute there are heavy metals in the soil, no matter how you look at it," Goodridge said. "There are metal readings that are above the MDE risk-based residential standards, which we both agreed to use. But what we don't agree on is the potential effect on the children."

Jones, the parent group's consultant, said the high levels are cause for concern, whether a "risk analysis" says so or not.

"There's always going to be somebody who says there is a risk and there's going to be the other side who said there is no risk," he said. "You don't want to come back one day and say, `Well, I wish I had known that back then.'"

At a meeting Tuesday night, the parents group suggested that the county top the existing soil at Worthington, just in case.

O'Hara said his office would "take that under advisement" - in particular, the cost.

Neither O'Hara nor Cousin could estimate how much it might cost to replace the soil at Worthington. O'Hara did say, however, that his department has spent about $60,000 testing and studying the soil at the school.

"It may be more cost-effective to do some capping, instead of spending a year deciding, well is there a risk, or isn't there a risk?" Jones said. "I don't think that, for kids, it's worth taking the chance."

County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, said the issue is fairly confusing.

"As is the case with any type of study, you can have experts on either side telling you what you want to hear or what you pay them to say," Merdon said. "I think as an initial step, I'd like to talk with the Maryland Department of the Environment, as an independent third party. They're the ones who developed the standards. I'd like to get their opinion as to whether there's a danger there or not."

But even if there is no real risk, Merdon said, the county should do whatever it takes to ease parents' minds.

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