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South Hill Elementary School

Downhill from NCR and Therm, Across the Street from Morse Chain / EPT

South Hill School Property Tests

WSP Environmental Strategies has submitted a Soil Vapor Work Plan, dated June 28, 2007, on behalf of Emerson, proposing installation of 15 new soil vapor testing wells located on both sides of South Aurora Street, between the EPT buildings and South Hill Elementary School. Three wells would be installed around the lower playground, three wells on the school property along South Aurora Street, three along the west side of South Aurora, three more about 200 feet to the west of the street, and three more up the hill along the "NCR sewer" line. The original tests of this sewer line were performed in November 2005 and showed TCE levels of 536 ug/m^3 and 477 ug/m^3 in the test well closest to the school. These results are shown on pages 16-17 of the Soil Vapor Work Plan. Unfortunately, the gap in the map copy obscures the values observed at test location VP-20, which were as follows, all in ug/m^3:
TCA: 27.7,   cis-1,2-Dichloroethene: 11.3,   Methylene chloride: 6.67,   PCE: 2.28,   trans-1,2-Dichloroethene: 2.22,   TCE: 536.


Site work for the six Soil Vapor Test Points specified in the Work Plan for the South Hill Elementary School was conducted during the week beginning July 16th. . The details on the release of the plan are below. The letter distributed by the Ithaca City School District by Paul Mintz, Asst. Superintendent is here. The hose seen in the picture (left) has been installed by drilling as far as possible - the bedrock in our hill made the drilling difficult and limited the depth of the well - and is one of three vapor test points installed this week around the school playground.

Given the noise generated by the drilling, officials are glad that the school is not in session. The school property is just across the street from the Emerson plant. Emerson's Work Plan also notes that the school property is about 2000 feet downhill from the NCR/Axiohm site, and about 1000 feet from the Therm facility.

(Photo by Regina Deschere)


The "Final Soil Vapor Testing Report - South Hill Elementary School", dated August 21, 2007, details how "low concentrations of certain VOCs were detected in the soil vapor samples collected on the school property. Trichloroethene (TCE) was detected at concentrations ranging from 0.492 to 8.36 ug/m^3." The report presents results from tests along and around the "NCR sewer", which runs down S. Aurora Street from the former NCR site further up South Hill, to support the theory that the toxins found on the school grounds originated at NCR, not at Morse or Emerson.  We are told that follow-up testing (involving 18 canisters of air taken from the school's sub-slab and from crawl spaces, but NOT from classroom or office space) has been performed, but further details or results have not been released.

ICSD and Community Residents React to Toxins Found In and Under Elementary School

While the actual test results have not yet been widely distributed, the letter sent by the NYS Department of Health (NYSDOH) to the Ithaca City School District (ICSD) states that "low levels of VOCs were detected in all samples collected."  ICSD Superintendent Dr. Judith Pastel released this memo to "Concerned Members of the South Hill Elementary School Community", stating that though they hadn't seen all the results yet, "The District ... does not believe any health hazard from TCE contamination exists at the school or on the property", but indicating that the District would "continue to pursue the matter".  

77 community residents, including many local officials, signed a letter to NYSDOH Commissioner Richard F. Daines, MD, requesting that all test results be released publicly, that NYSDOH or Emerson "conduct comprehensive indoor ambient air quality testing immediately after the school's heating system is operating on a full-time basis", that the DOH investigate installing appropriate mitigation systems, and that the agency work with NYSDEC to determine the sources of the contamination and work on remediation: "Removal of contaminant sources is critical to protecting the school and nearby residents from continuing pollution hazards."  Further comments are included in this report by Krisy Gashler of The Ithaca Journal,  as well as in this editorial, calling for air tests in the classrooms.

ICSD Waffles on Further Air Testing at Elementary School

As reported by Krisy Gashler in the October 13, 2007 Ithaca Journal, Ithaca City School District officials are backtracking from promises they made to request testing of indoor air at South Hill Elementary School. Their initial statements (September 11 and 12) were that testing would be performed once the heat is turned on and the building's windows are closed.

Newer statements suggest they want to review the results and see a "final report" from the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC). The results released by the NYS Department of Health (NYSDOH) on September 5, showed contaminants in ALL the samples taken, with TCE, PERC, Toluene and Chloroform among the many toxins found in the sub-slab tests, and Freon, Toluene, and Chloroform among the many toxins found in the crawlspace tests. A summary of the results is here, a (hard-to-read) map of the school lower-level floor plan is here.

The cover letter for the September 5 NYSDOH report says "As is often the case, low levels of VOCs were detected in all the samples collected. Chemicals are part of our everyday life. They are present in the products we store and use indoors and in the outdoor air that enters buildings. As such some chemicals are expected to be found in air samples. The low levels of VOCs detected in the samples collected from beneath the school do not indicate levels of contamination requiring further investigation."

This is the same NYSDOH that (in 1991) told the owner of a home on South Cayuga Street that the TCE found in the home's basement (a reading of 46 ug/M^3) "may present a slightly increased exposure to trichloroethene compared to the control houses" but "Health effects are not expected at the levels in your house." The "acceptable" levels of TCE and other toxins are much higher under NYS standards than in many other states.

Parents of elementary school children have every right to be concerned about their safety, and the safety of the teachers and staff who care for them. We all have the right to expect truthful answers from school district and state officials about the problems we face and steps that are being taken to address our concerns. ICSD is waffling. Neither the NYSDEC nor the NYSDOH have offered significant help in our understanding the problems we face - the last Public Meeting on this issue was held in January 2006.

ICSD, State Agencies Hold Meeting to Discuss Testing at Elementary School

A public meeting was held at South Hill Elementary School on December 5 for parents, staff and concerned neighbors to hear from ICSD, State Education Department, NYSDEC and NYSDEC officials about the state's determination that the tests performed thus far in and around the school (sub-slab, crawlspace, and soil vapor tests on the grounds) had convinced them that indoor air testing was not needed. Paul Mintz, representing ICSD suggested that paying for the indoor air tests would require cutting other programs, while DEC and DOH representatives said their judgment was that indoor air tests simply weren't needed. Parents and staff were NOT convinced - how so much testing could have been performed WITHOUT testing the areas where the students and staff actually spend their time is indeed mysterious. It would appear that ICSD has an attitude of "what we don't know won't hurt us...". Krisy Gashler's summary of the meeting is here.


Public Pressure forces ICSD to Release of Results of Testing at Elementary School

Both The Ithaca Journal and Walter Hang had to submit FOIL requests to ICSD for release of the results of testing at the school, conducted over last year's Christmas Break. While it seems ludicrous that the concerned citizens of this district who have paid for these tests should have to wait over three months to receive the test results, it took a Journal Editorial, and Krisy Gashler's report, providing reactions of concerned residents and School Board members, to force disclosure.  Walter Hang's message to district administrator Paul Mintz, which was sent to all the members of the ICSD Board as well, asks many questions about the report and the conclusions Mr. Mintz draws in his March 26 memo sent to "South Hill Elementary School Caregivers and Staff".

The report and related documents are now on the ICSD site.  The Journal carried this story on initial reactions, and this story on the feelings of Beth Kunz, School Board Liaison to South Hill Elementary. In reviewing the results, one should keep in mind that the NYS DOH "guidelines" for toxins are quite high compared to many other states, and that children, considered an especially vulnerable population due to their developing bodies, are spending large parts of their days within these rooms.  One classroom, Room 221, has been singled out for special attention, but the wide range of toxins found all over the school (TCE, benzene, carbon tetrachloride, toluene, PERC, PCE and others) and the levels of carbon tet in the ambient air, are alarming signs. These chemicals may be "universal", as stated by a DEC official, but they are not healthy for us.  The presence of cleaning products in the air does not make the air cleaner.  As Ms. Kunz suggests, the problem is not just the presence of the poisons in the school, but also the reluctance of the District to share this information with the public.



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