PROVIDENCE – Proponents of a bill to alter the School Siting Law passed last year say it will strengthen the safety requirements for building schools on former industrial or manufacturing sites.
Opponents – including a mother who lived on the infamous Love Canal Superfund site in western New York state – stood on the steps of the Statehouse Wednesday to say it does just the opposite. They claim the bill “guts” the safety provisions of what they believe is a “fabulous” law that is the strongest of its kind in the nation and has become a model that other states are using to create their own laws.
“It’s less than a year since the signing of the bill,” said Lois Gibbs, who lived at Love Canal in the 1970s and whose efforts there led to the federal Superfund law that pays to clean up polluted areas, “and they are already coming and trying to tear it apart. It’s like, what is wrong here?” People who lived around the site fell victim to various diseases and other maladies.
The subject of the dispute is “vapor intrusion,” belowground volatile chemical contamination that migrates through soil and makes its way into buildings through cracks, holes and foundations, according to Jamie Rhodes of Clean Water Action, one of the groups who organized the event. The current law restricts the siting of schools where there is soil, water or gas pollution, Rhodes explained.
Bills sponsored by Rep. John Edwards in the House and Sen. Juan Pichardo in the Senate, who also sponsored the original law, removes the restrictions on gas pollution if the school buildings use “engineered remedies” to address the pollution.
Rhode Island Mayoral Academy is supporting the change, which would allow them to move the Blackstone Valley Prep to a site on Roosevelt Avenue in Pawtucket.
Love Canal was built on an around a former chemical dump, but Gibbs said, “We got sick not from the dump itself, we got sick from vapor intrusion, the very thing they are talking about changing in this bill is what happened at Love Canal.
“Why this group of people would want to put Love Canal under the school of innocent children is beyond me, absolutely beyond me,” she said.
“If you care about children, if you care at all about teachers,” Gibbs implored the small handful of people gathered for the event, “then you should stand up, make some phone calls, be in the face of legislators and the people who are trying to undo the best piece of legislation this country has.
“Fight like hell,” she declared, “don’t let them poison your children.”
Michael Magee, CEO of RI Mayoral Academy, confirmed that his group supports the new legislation, saying it also has the backing of the state Department of Environmental Management and the RI Association of School Committees.
“We have been assured by people in the scientific community who we trust that no one could ever create an unsafe school building under that legislation,” Magee said. “We would never, under any circumstances, want to create an unsafe school building.
He said the measure under consideration, “simply clarifies the standards under which you could reuse industrial sites for schools without making it any less safe, but making the regulatory process a little more clear.”
Magee said student safety “is our absolute number one priority” in any school development project. And we would never support any legislation we thought would lead to an unsafe school and we don’t think this legislation does.”
Magee added that RI Mayoral Academy is only the first school to test out the law that passed last year. He predicted that many other schools – public, private, charter – running up against this law if they look to build in urban and urban ring areas.
“I think it is going to affect all K-12 schools over time,” he added.
Rhodes said vapor intrusion is a new field of study and science is just starting to understand full ramifications it has on human health. “There is absolutely no need to make kids guinea pigs in some long-term science experiment that places schools on top of these sites.”
One of the “engineered remedies” for the vapor intrusion, Rhodes said, is called “sub-slab depressurization systems,” which he and other critics claim are costly for schools, are unreliable and require monitoring and maintenance for the life of the school. That, the opponents said, would eat up money better used for books, supplies and other educational expenses.
“That is not necessarily the case,” Magee asserted, “there are all kinds of engineered solutions. The cost of whatever kind of remediation you would have to do on the property would already be built into the purchase price. We certainly would never undertake a school development project for a mayoral academy that was so costly that it would result in us taking dollars out of the classroom. That just wouldn’t make any sense.”
Maureen Martin of the RI Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals said her members “are quite at a loss to understand how or why anybody is considering putting our school children in school buildings on contaminated sites where there is a potential for toxic vapors to seep into classrooms.
She said the contamination could have a greater effect on students in low-income, urban areas who generally are already exposed to other types of chemical contamination.
Holly Dygert said she detected “a toxic smell in the air” when she dropped off and picked up her daughter every day at the International Charter School in Pawtucket, which she said is next to a contaminated site. She complained about the problem, but Dygert said the Department of Environmental Management told her there were air monitors on the site measuring what was in the air, and there was nothing to worry about.