School soil called `safe'

Health, safety experts give Worthington stamp of approval

`Found no significant ... risk'

Many parents seem eased by report, but others raise questions

March 21, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

So much confusing information has been disseminated about the safety of the soil at Worthington Elementary School that County Executive James N. Robey felt it necessary last night to convene a panel of health and safety experts to deliver what he said he hopes will be the final word on the matter:

Worthington, he said, is safe.

"It's time to put away the rumors, the extremes on both ends and talk about the facts," Robey said.

For 2 1/2 hours, more than 100 parents and community members from the Worthington area listened to school officials, toxicologists, and representatives from the county Department of Public Works, the Maryland Department of the Environment and the county Health Department give the Ellicott City elementary school their stamp of approval.

The meeting was held at Howard High School.

"We found no significant health risk," said John O'Hara, chief of the Bureau of Environmental Services in the county Department of Public Works.

"This isn't even on the radar screen," said Karl Kalbacher, environmental program administrator at the state Department of the Environment. "This is a safe site. This is a safe school. And you should not be worried."

"If you asked me, would I send my kids to this school - yes, I would," said Bob Warwick, toxicologist and the consultant the county used to analyze the health risk in the school's soil.

Concerns have been bubbling in the Worthington community since testing done at the school determined that levels of metals in the ground were high. Four metals - aluminum, iron, vanadium and mercury - and arsenic exceeded minimum state cleanup guidelines, causing parents to worry.

Although they deemed the school site safe, Howard County school officials agreed last month to remove the top layer of soil around the school to assuage the fears of parents and community members.

But questions remained.

Would the 2 inches of soil the school system proposed to remove be enough?

Where would the replacement soil come from?

What quality would it be?

How did the county explain an outside consultant's more negative assessment of the soil?

What about the air inside the school? Was that safe?

Robey's panel attempted to answer those questions and then some.

"We remain confident in the finding of our consultants and be- lieve without a doubt that the soil at Worthington Elementary School does not pose a health risk," said county spokeswoman Victoria Goodman. "We're asking parents to set aside the emotions of the contradictory findings and see the logic in the solution we are proposing."

Many parents seemed at least somewhat calmed by the panel's confidence and the packet of information the county handed out.

"I appreciated all the different perspectives, and I thought that the report was well-written," said parent Dave McDonald. "The fact that they actually put it in writing provides a degree of comfort. They put themselves at risk if they didn't believe it. There's still some things to think about, but I'm glad I came."

Other parents wondered why no one on the panel presented an opposing view. "I believe that they provided a lot of information," said Jodi Navid, who moved to the Worthington area three weeks ago. "But I think it might have been one-sided."

Robey said the purpose of the meeting was to eliminate confusion.

"This is our show, not theirs," he said, referring to a group of parents who hired a consultant to review the county's testing. "They had a right to bring their consultant here to ask questions if they wanted."

The parents' consultant did not appear, but members of the group, Parents for Safe Schools, managed to ask some of their lingering questions, and President Carol McKissick said the county's "show" was long-awaited.

"I guess in some regards we should feel vindicated in that the county found it necessary to finally have a meeting like this and answer the community's questions," she said. "We're very happy they've gone through this much trouble to make this stuff understandable."

McKissick 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 adjacent to the landfill, was safe, but parents were not convinced.

After the meeting, McKissick said she is still not 100 percent convinced, despite all of Robey's facts.

"There's still a lot to be learned," she said. "I'm glad they're going to do something. If they weren't going to do anything, we'd be in for a cat fight. When it's your kids, it's emotional."

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