Under pressure, superintendent agrees to second enviro study at Moore County school site

Under pressure, superintendent agrees to second enviro study at Moore County school site

- in Environment, Top Story
Robert Grimesey, superintendent of Moore County Schools (Photo: District website)

More than 10 pollution sources, including two Superfund sites, are within a mile of the new Aberdeen Elementary School

Moore County Schools Superintendent Robert Grimesey has ordered a Phase II environmental assessment of the new Aberdeen Elementary School site, but insists the area is safe.

“My decision to proceed is based solely on persistent and unsubstantiated assertions by some critics that the school board and its administration have failed to ensure the groundwater and soil composition meet standards that are safe for students and staff,” Grimesey said.

Grimesey announced his decision and offered the comments during his superintendent’s report at a public school board meeting July 8.

Policy Watch reported last month that the new Aberdeen Elementary School will be located between two Superfund sites – one of them four-tenths of a mile north, the other a little over a half-mile south – where pesticides were dumped for 50 years. Much of the contamination was removed in the 1990s, but some remains in lined landfills. Groundwater from the southern site, known as the McIver Dump, is also contaminated with pesticides, but flows away from the school, according to an analysis by the geotechnical firm Building & Earth.

The new school replaces two 70-year-old facilities, Aberdeen Elementary and Aberdeen Primary. Although Moore County is 83 percent white, according to Census data, two-thirds of the students attending those schools are from communities of color. Eighty percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, above the state average of 59 percent.

Policy Watch’s story noted that while residents are concerned about the proximity of the Superfund sites to the school, as important are the numerous other pollution sources within a mile of the site (see the graphic below). The new school is also located next to an industrial area and within a quarter-mile of a Ferrellgas facility, where enormous propane tanks sit next to Aberdeen Carolina & Western Railway tracks.

More than 10 pollution sources are within a mile of the new Aberdeen Elementary School site. (Map by Lisa Sorg, based on site visits, environmental records and Google maps)

A Phase 1 environmental assessment, conducted by Building & Earth, showed no evidence of contamination onsite, based on historical documents and visual inspections. Independent testing, which would be part of a Phase II assessment, isn’t warranted, according to EPA guidelines, unless records indicate there could be pollution on the property.

However, the assessment did not consider many other hazards and pollution sources within a mile radius of the site that could pose health issues for students and staff. The firm did not respond to an email from Policy Watch.

The district acknowledged to Policy Watch last month that it did not submit the Phase I assessment for public comment, as suggested by the EPA, but did provide the documents to “anyone who requested it.” After discussing the assessment with Policy Watch, the district posted it on its website.

The district did not respond to a question from Policy Watch about whether the public would be allowed to formally comment on the Phase II document.

Given its knowledge of the site, Building & Earth will also conduct the second phase, Grimesey said. That will include soil sampling at 5 feet and 10 feet in depth, groundwater testing for volatile organic compounds, semi-volatile organic compounds, pesticides and metals. Groundwater near the southern boundary of the school site will also be tested because it is closest to the McIver Dump.

“It’s a shame that we’re forced into doing this,” said board member Libby Carter. “I hope this will prove we would not take a step forward that would harm students in any way.”

School construction will continue while testing is conducted. The school is scheduled to open in the fall of 2020.

The results are expected no later than early September, and possibly by Aug. 5.

The additional work will cost $25,300, Grimesey said, money that “could be spent on other critical needs.”

North Carolina public school districts are, in general, underfunded. But Moore County has had other unexpected expenses: The district, for instance, recently announced it would spend roughly $30,000 re-administering the ACT to 440 students after a school official lost the original completed exams earlier this year.

As for the new Aberdeen Elementary School, the district used bond money to purchase the 22-acre tract off N.C. 5 for just $198,000, or about $9,000 an acre. By comparison, the district, also using bond funds, is spending $82,000 an acre – totaling more than $1 million – on land for a new elementary school in Southern Pines.

In his remarks, Grimesey disparaged Policy Watch’s story, calling it “an editorial inappropriately couched as investigative journalism published by a political advocacy group.”

Grimesey’s comments are available on the school district’s YouTube channel (see below), starting at around the 3-hour, 15-minute mark.

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[Editor’s note: The June news story was based on reviews of hundreds of pages of documents and interviews with scientists and academics. Policy Watch interviewed two school board members, a county commissioner, and twice interviewed the district’s director of operations, John Birath, and public information officer Catherine Murphy. The story was also fact-checked with Birath and Murphy.

Policy Watch emailed a link to the story to the school board and district personnel on the morning of publication, June 14. Policy Watch received no requests for corrections or clarifications from board members, Grimesey, or district leaders who were interviewed for the article.

Grimesey said the story “grossly misrepresented the actions and intentions of the school board and administration. The editorial included highly subjective report cards with criteria for which arbitrary letter grades were assigned by an unidentified person within the organization  [Policy Watch].”

In fact, Lisa Sorg, the author of the story, assigned the letter grades based on the district’s adherence to voluntary EPA school siting guidelines. In most cases, the district failed to comply with those guidelines, and one board member said he didn’t even know of the recommendations until Policy Watch provided them.

It should also be noted that Policy Watch is not a political advocacy group. It is a journalism outlet that operates independently under the umbrella of the N.C. Justice Center, a nonpartisan policy nonprofit. Click here to read more about the project and the code of ethics to which its staff strives to adhere.]