Environmental test results are in for controversial Aberdeen Elementary School site in Moore County

By: - August 28, 2019 5:00 am
An artist’s ‘illustration of the new Aberdeen Elementary School, currently under construction on NC-5. (Illustration: Moore County Schools)

Lead detected in groundwater at above EPA “action level”

Next August, more than 600 students will step inside a gleaming, new Aberdeen Elementary School for the first time, likely unaware of the low — albeit still present — levels of environmental contamination that lie underground.

On the first day of school this year, Aug. 26, Moore County Schools held a special meeting to announce the results of a much-anticipated Phase II environmental study. The meeting was scheduled for 3 p.m., when many parents were either working or en route to picking up their children. There was no public comment period.

Richard Brown of Building & Earth, a geotechnical firm hired by the Moore County Schools, said there is “no evidence of recognized environmental conditions” at the new Aberdeen school site, and that most of the contaminants detected were well below state and federal standards.

That does not, however, mean the area is clean.

Concentrations of lead exceeded the EPA’s action levels in one groundwater sample. The amount of lead in one groundwater well at the new Aberdeen school site was detected at 0.0249 parts per million – 66 percent above the EPA action level of 0.015 parts per million. Trace amounts of the pesticide DDD were also detected in two wells. However, the concentrations are well below the state’s groundwater quality standards.

The sample containing lead was taken from a well 16 feet deep on the east side of the property, adjacent to tracts zoned industrial. The DDD detections were found in the east well and another on the south side of the site.

DDD is a product of DDT as it breaks down. DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972, but it persists in the environment. DDD was also used a separate pesticide. Both pesticides were detected at several Superfund sites, including Fairway 6, the Superfund site three-tenths of a mile north of the school.

Because of the exceedance of lead, Brown, recommended that the school refrain from using groundwater for drinking or irrigation. The EPA’s Maximum Contaminant Level Goal, which is unenforceable, for lead in drinking water is zero. The district had already determined the school would connect to the Aberdeen public water system.

“It is our opinion the site poses no significant risks,” Brown told the school board.

Richard Brown of Building and Earth, a geotechnical firm, presented to the Moore County School Board results of the Phase II Environmental Assessment of the new Aberdeen Elementary School site. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Lead was also found in low amounts in all eight soil borings. The detections occurred within the first six inches of the soil. This includes soils at a proposed playground extension on the south side of the school.

However, no amount of lead is safe, according to the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry reports that “even when exposed to small amounts of lead levels, children may appear inattentive, hyperactive and irritable.” Higher exposures to the chemical can permanently damage a child’s developing brain and nervous system. And children are more likely to be exposed to lead because they put things in their mouths – including dirt.

Moore County Schools spokeswoman Catherine Murphy told Policy Watch that all play areas, as well as all exterior areas, will be covered with 4 to 6 inches of topsoil and with grass. Play areas with structures are required to have six to eight inches of mulch on top of a layer of geofabric. “Children at the Aberdeen Elementary School will not be playing in dirt,” she said.

Under construction on NC Highway 5, the new school is located near at least a dozen pollution sources. It is sandwiched between two Superfund sites – the McIver dump and Fairway 6 – where pesticides were dumped for 50 years. It sits next to an industrial area, across the road from a large propane facility and a railroad, and within a mile of 10 air pollution sources.

According to current attendance zones, 80 percent of students who would go to the new school are eligible for free or reduced price lunch; two-thirds are from communities of color. These children are especially vulnerable to the effects of lead, in part because they are more likely to live in older housing contaminated with lead paint or lead plumbing, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As Policy Watch reported in June, the siting of the new school presented environmental and social justice problems. Nor did the district consult the EPA’s voluntary school siting guidelines to ensure the land – purchased for just $9,000 an acre – adequately protected children’s health.

The story also reported on the Phase I environmental assessment conducted in 2015 by Building & Earth which concluded there were no known environmental risks on the 22-acre site. After Policy Watch published its investigation this summer, Superintendent Robert Grimesey commissioned a Phase II environmental assessment in July to assuage citizen concerns.

For Phase II, Building & Earth tested for more than 150 contaminants, including metals, pesticides, and volatile and semi-volatile compounds. The firm sampled groundwater from three wells and soil from eight boring locations near the walking track, playground and the bus/car drop-off zone.

Brown told the board that some of the contaminants are “naturally occurring” and their levels reflect that. That is true, but the contaminants’ source makes their presence no less troubling.

This map shows the new Aberdeen Elementary School site and a proposed neighborhood that would be built by a private developer. The subdivision, which would be even closer to the old McIver pesticide dump site than the school, would include a greenway and two ponds. (Map source: Moore County Schools)

Chromium, for example, was detected below state cleanup levels in all eight soil samples at the Aberdeen school site. The source is unclear: chromium is naturally occurring, but also has been detected in soil at Fairway 6. It can be emitted into the air by industrial sources, like concrete plants, and then ride the wind before falling to the ground. A Cemex concrete plant is located about a mile east of the new school.

Nor did the test results specify the type of chromium detected. Chromium 3 is relatively benign. But Chromium 6, an industrial byproduct, is toxic, and has much stricter state cleanup guidelines.

(The EPA regulates only total chromium, not 6; the agency is considering whether to enact rules on 6.)

Brown of Building & Earth did not respond to a text message asking for clarification.

(Update: On Wednesday morning, Brown emailed Policy Watch and said the test was for total chromium. Total chromium combines both types 3 and 6, but the percentage of each was not parsed out.)

Traces of industrial solvents were also found in five soil borings, all taken from the eastern and southern sampling sites.

The new Aberdeen school is expected to jump-start housing and commercial developments in a largely industrial part of town. A map on the Moore County Schools website shows a proposed retail and commercial center on the north side of the school property, to be built by a private developer. A park and greenway would flank three sides of the school property and include two ponds, presumably fed by groundwater.

Adam Crocker, director of Aberdeen’s Parks and Recreation Department, told Policy Watch the town “has no plans for future park sites” adjacent to the new school, and that the schematic likely reflects potential private development.

At the school board meeting, Brown of Building & Earth recommended no further investigation of the property.

Board member Ed Dennison, who was elected at-large, said the district has done its due diligence for the property. “I’m confident those attending the new Aberdeen Elementary School will be safe and secure.

“I know many of you have been looking for assurances that there will never be a problem,” Dennison went on. “Can you guarantee what will happen tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, 10 years from now? If not, then how can you expect an organization or individual to guarantee what will or will not happen to someone in the future?”

This map shows the orientation of the new Aberdeen Elementary School site in relation to the testing sites for soil and groundwater. The east side of the property abuts tracts that are zoned industrial; the south side lies about a half-mile from the McIver pesticide dump. However, it is at a lower elevation than the school. A creek also acts as a barrier for groundwater to reach the site. Results of the tests are listed below. (Source: Building & Earth)

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.