Responding to recent criticism of the location of the new Aberdeen Elementary School, Superintendent Bob Grimesey announced on Monday that an additional environmental study will be conducted.
The Board of Education has come under fire in recent months for buying land on N.C. 5 for the new school near several abandoned pesticide dump sites that were remediated in the late 1980s and mid-1990s. Critics contend contamination could remain in the ground and water, posing a potential long-term health risk.
In an effort to quell those fears, what is called a Phase II environmental assessment will be done on the site of the school now under construction.
“It’s a shame that we are forced into doing (the Phase II study) because I think we stand united that the property has the kind of quality, location, safety … everything is there in Aberdeen that we want, and it will truly serve our students in a very safe and habitable manner,” said school board Vice-Chair Libby Carter. “I hope that this will prove to folks that we would not take a step forward that would harm our children in any way.”
In Aberdeen’s limits, few undeveloped properties are more than a mile from the Aberdeen Pesticide Dump Site, a catch-all used to refer to five separate locations where a series of pesticide companies disposed of waste from their production processes beginning in the 1930s.
Construction began in November on a 22-acre site off N.C. 5 across from the former Pit Golf Course in November. The school board purchased that property in 2015 with the intention of siting a new 800-student K-5 school to replace the aging Aberdeen primary and elementary schools.
The schools chose that site based on where Aberdeen-area students currently live, as well as growth patterns in the area as projected by the Operations Research and Education Laboratory at N.C. State University. Just off N.C. 5, it offers easy access to municipal infrastructure — the schools and town of Aberdeen are splitting the cost of installing water lines — and the likelihood of efficient bus routes.
However, the campus is between two of the five dump site locations: half a mile south of what was the golf course’s Fairway Six and four-fifths of a mile north of the McIver Dump off Roseland Road. The school site itself is not on any watch list.
Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency orchestrated an extensive cleanup of the area more than 20 years ago, the site remains under scrutiny. A number of wells monitor groundwater contamination, which the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality performs reviews of every five years.
The most recent five-year review was filed with the EPA in September 2018. It determined that measures taken over the last 30 years are still effectively “protective of human health and the environment.”
The 2013 review stated that no pathways remained to expose people to contaminated groundwater, and that future exposure to groundwater through the installation of potable wells would be prevented by “appropriate institutional controls.”
Before purchasing the site for $180,000, Moore County Schools hired a national geotechnical engineering firm in 2015 to perform a Phase I environmental analysis of the site based primarily on existing documentation related to the property: historical environmental records, fire insurance, and USGS topographic maps and aerial photographs.
Typically, the results of a Phase I study indicate whether or not the environmental implications surrounding a piece of land warrant a more in-depth Phase II analysis. In its update to the Phase I review in 2017, Building and Earth Sciences Inc. stated that there was “no evidence of recognized environmental conditions in connection with the property.”
During the Moore County Board of Education meeting Monday, Grimesey informed the board that he had authorized Building and Earth to move forward with a Phase II study, but not for fears of contamination under the school building that’s now halfway completed.
“Let me make it clear from the start that my decision does not suggest that I harbor any concern about the environmental quality of the Aberdeen school site,” he said. “My decision to proceed with a Phase II assessment is based solely on persistent and unsubstantiated assertions by some critics that the school board and its administration have failed to ensure that the site’s groundwater and soil composition meet standards that are safe for our students and staff members.”
Last month, a piece published online by N.C. Policy Watch raised concerns about the site’s location proximal to not only Superfund sites but to a number of industries, diesel exhaust from traffic on N.C. 5 and the Moore County landfill.
The piece also castigates the schools for eschewing the EPA’s general guidelines for school siting, links exposure to air pollution with poor student outcomes, and points out that the majority of students now attending Aberdeen-area schools qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.
“In recent weeks an online editorial, inappropriately couched as investigative journalism, was published by a political advocacy group,” Grimesey said. “The editorial included highly subjective report cards with criteria to which arbitrary letter grades were assigned by an unidentified person or organization.”
What he called Aberdeen’s “unfortunate environmental legacy” aside, Grimesey said that there is no legal onus attached to the EPA guidelines, which the agency issues with a disclaimer as not universally applicable.
The new Aberdeen school is scheduled to open in the fall of 2020 along with a similar school off Morganton Road in Southern Pines.
With McDeeds Creek opening this fall to alleviate crowding at Sandhills Farm Life and Vass-Lakeview, and a new Pinehurst school in the works for 2021, Moore County Schools is in the midst of formulating a district-wide overhaul of attendance lines.
After discussing and collecting public input on a pair of proposed redistricting plans this spring, Grimesey is expected to make a final proposal to the school board in September. Those proposals would move many students from Pinehurst-area schools east to Southern Pines and Aberdeen, and from Carthage north to Robbins.
Grimesey and board Chair Helena Wallin-Miller cast some of the criticism as manufactured controversy over a piece of property the schools purchased four years ago with the stated goal of building an elementary school there.
“In recent weeks, those opposed to the Moore County Schools redistricting process have used this topic as one of multiple wedges intended to erode the public’s confidence and trust in the school board and its administration by sowing confusion and doubt in the minds of the public," Grimesey said.
Wallin-Miller said she was "actually surprised" by all of the attention on this issue.
“We have talked about this property since it was purchased in 2015, again in 2017, excessively during the bond campaign," she said. "We’ve talked about it with the public, the county commissioners, and at school board meetings.
“So I’m surprised that these questions or concerns have come up at this point. I have complete confidence in this property, and if the Phase II study gives parents and future students that confidence that we feel, then let’s do it and move on.”
Grimesey ordered the Phase II environmental study, which will cost the district $25,300, in an attempt to allay the lingering concerns of parents and those in the Aberdeen area. The Phase II study will involve testing soil sampled from 5 to 10 feet deep for pesticides, volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds, and metals. A temporary well will be installed along the site’s southern boundary to sample groundwater for testing.
“A Phase II assessment offers the only means by which we can ensure that the public record validates that the school district has exceeded all reasonable standards in its care for the health, safety and welfare of our students and staff members,” Grimesey said.
Building and Earth is expected to complete the Phase II assessment in a matter of weeks, and the school board is expected to review the results by Sept. 3.
“In the very unlikely event that the Phase II assessment identifies the presence of any compound that exceeds federal or state regulatory limits, we will take whatever steps may be necessary to mitigate any such risk,” Grimesey said. “Whatever the eventual outcome, construction of the new Aberdeen school will continue.”
Contact Mary Kate Murphy at (910) 693-2479 or firstname.lastname@example.org.