Making the Grade

Funding has been secured, a site found, and the architect chosen for a new school. Administrators, school representatives, and community members ceremoniously don hardhats and grasp shovels as they stand on a plot of plowed ground, ready to turn the first spades of dirt on the construction site for the new facility. But, within that soil could lie a costly problem, and one that requires an immediate and thorough response.

When ground contamination levels exceed established safety requirements, schools must take immediate action to rid the area of environmental impurities. This process, known as remediation, is commonly done on all types of properties — especially those formerly designated on or near waste disposal sites or abandoned oilfields.

In recent years, school officials across the country have struggled mightily with site contamination issues, both at existing school locations as well as proposed sites for future facilities. Providing a safe environment for staff and students is a top priority for both state and district officials, but in many areas, limited land availability creates a serious dilemma.

Site Assessment Phases

In 2002, the California legislature passed a law mandating that all school districts conduct environmental site assessments and have them approved by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC).

Under the law, schools are required to submit a Phase I review, which involves record checks of a property's past uses. If the review indicates the potential for contamination, the next step is a preliminary endangerment assessment, in which samples are taken. If significant contamination is present, a district may be required to clean up the site or choose an alternative location.

In addition to the reviews required by the DTSC, a school district in California wanting to build a facility will have to seek approval of the Department of Education, the State Allocation Board and the State Architect, as well as follow the provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act.

Inherent Issues

Officials attempting to implement the soil remediation process at an existing or proposed school site often have to contend with more than just environmental issues. Disgruntled civic leaders and action groups worried about the potential health risks posed by the site can cause major delays to site assessment and subsequent clean-up schedules. In addition, interrupted construction timelines can lead to classroom overpopulation issues or split scheduling, depending on the severity of the contamination.

School projects often draw a higher level of public interest (particularly existing schools) than do other projects of comparable size and complexity. As a result, school remediation projects tend to operate on a shorter time line than do other voluntary cleanup program projects, due to the need for existing schools to be deemed habitable and to allow local school districts to proceed with new school construction as quickly as possible.

Viable Alternatives

Brownfields are defined as properties that are abandoned or underutilized due to actual or perceived contamination, but many of these areas have redevelopment or reuse potential. In addition to being found throughout urban areas, in California, brownfields are found in rural areas (e.g., agricultural lands, abandoned mine lands, burn dumps, abandoned lumber mills). Because the availability of land in more densely populated urban areas is limited, it may be necessary to reuse brownfields in urban areas and in some rural areas as school properties.

There are several benefits to using brownfields properties for school construction. Recycling brownfields can curb urban sprawl and its associated problems (increased traffic load and degradation of air quality, increase in infrastructure needs and taxes, loss of open space). It also can facilitate placement of schools in close proximity to the community served by the school, while limiting the need to "take" residential properties for new school construction. Placing a school in an urban area can initiate revitalization of the area overall.

While reuse of brownfields as school properties can be a viable option that might offer positive benefits to the community, these properties and their surroundings must be carefully scrutinized to ensure that their selection represents a truly safe environment. Fortunately, many school districts have tackled this challenge head-on, looking to eliminate potentially dangerous scenarios through preventive action.

Schools Districts Take Charge

Many states require that educational institutions conduct an environmental assessment of a potential school site before a facility is built. In recent years, California’s site evaluation and remediation policies have become increasingly stringent, and several of the state’s largest school districts have taken a proactive approach in combating school site contamination issues.

In response to the state’s environmental legislation regarding site assessment, one school district in California has adopted a simple and effective set of guidelines that increase the likelihood of locating a safe and appropriate location for a new facility. Those guidelines are as follows.

• Schools should conduct a thorough examination of a proposed site, including a complete site history, a site visit, a survey of surrounding potential sources of contamination, and testing and evaluation of potential health risks to children. Where there is cause for concern, school districts should employ remediation processes that will determine whether or not the site is safe for construction per DTSC standards.

• If other sites are not available, the proposed site will be tested and cleaned to meet Phase I requirements.

• No source of contamination, such as a landfill or containment facility, should be built within 1,000 ft. of a school; no school should be situated within two miles of industrial or other facilities that release chemicals.

• Parents, age-appropriate students, teachers, and community members are encouraged to take part in the site-acquisition process, as well as educate themselves on state requirements regarding school site pollution policies.

School site contamination will always be a subject of contention between district officials and the public. As a result, many districts seem to struggle moving forward with any sort of corrective action. By encouraging the public to involve and educate themselves on site assessment and soil remediation processes, some school districts have managed to encourage public participation without hindering the remediation process.

Building schools in environmentally safe locations has become increasingly difficult, as rapid population growth — combined with minimal space availability — force city officials and site developers to explore all available acreage. As a result, remediation has become an integral component of existing and potential school development. In many cases, societal pressures can slow or limit the remediation process, but it is imperative that policy makers and parents alike allow qualified parties ample opportunity to determine the safety of the location before the building process begins.

Michael Leonard is a project manager for SCS Engineers and is based in Long Beach, CA. For more information, please visit or contact [email protected]