Soil layer removal set near school

Public works official recommends 2 inches, replaced by 4 inches

Way to address `concerns'

Worthington parents want more details on the cleanup plan

February 20, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Howard County school officials have agreed to remove soil around Worthington Elementary School in Ellicott City to assuage the fears of parents and community members who have complained about high levels of metals and potentially toxic chemicals in the ground.

Sydney L. Cousin, the school system's chief operating officer, said the Department of Public Works has recommended that Cousin's office remove about 2 inches of soil surrounding the school and replace it with 4 inches of fresh top soil.

John O'Hara, chief of the department's Bureau of Environmental Services, told Cousin that testing his office had done on the soil showed no danger to pupils or adults at the school. But he recommended the "remedial work" to soothe parents and nearby residents.

The soil would be replaced on about half of the school's 19 acres in areas closest to the school, Cousin said.

"This is a way of addressing the concerns of the Parents for Safe Schools committee and at the same time make improvements to the grounds of the school, which would have been done anyway in the future," Cousin said.

Carol McKissick, president of the grass-roots advocacy group Parents for Safe Schools, said she was unsure that O'Hara's recommendation would solve the problems. Removing 2 inches of soil might not be enough, she said.

"It's been recommended by our consultant that 2 inches is not sufficient," she said. "Clearly, we should be looking at a minimum of 3 inches. Actually, we'd be happier with 6 inches."

She said a preliminary look at O'Hara's recommendations left her with many questions and re- inforced the group's desire to have testing done inside the school.

"Given the fact that they're going to be moving the [contaminated] soil around, we think it's even more important to do preliminary wipe tests, and then, after the soil has been moved, to do the wipe tests again," she said. "Even with the doors and windows closed, it's not an airtight building."

McKissick said after the parent group met last night with Cousin and public works officials that she wants more details, such as who is going to do the work and the source of the new soil.

"We want to make sure that the soil they bring in is of better quality than the soil that's already there," she said. "This is a waste of the taxpayers' money if we're not creating a better situation for the kids."

"I don't know if we're ecstatically happy or not," McKissick added. "What are we talking about here? Are we talking about a crew of guys with shovels and a wheelbarrow? Or are we talking about real equipment? Right now, we're cautiously optimistic."

She and other group members became involved in the fight to clean up Worthington after engineers hired by the school system found potentially dangerous levels of methane and other volatile chemicals at a proposed school site near Worthington - next to the former New Cut Landfill. Officials said Worthington, which was built on top of the landfill, was safe, but parents were not convinced.

The parent group hired a consultant to review testing of the school's soil completed last year by the Department of Public Works.

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

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

Cousin said then that he wanted to wait to see what O'Hara's office found. Yesterday, Cousin said the soil replacement - once it is approved by the Board of Education - could begin in the summer.

He said he didn't have an estimate of the cost.

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