Aberdeen Elementary

School officials tour the new Aberdeen Elementary School now under construction.   (Photograph by Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot)

For Aberdeen residents, a new public elementary school has been a long time coming.

The school, now nearing the halfway point in construction off N.C. 5, represents a nexus between the town’s history and the generations that will be educated within its walls.

When it opens in the fall of 2020, it will replace two schools originally built in 1949 and expanded piecemeal through the 1980s. On Thursday, Aberdeen’s town commissioners and school officials walked through the construction site, where cinder-block walls now clearly define the main corridor and three classroom wings.

Anchored by a full-sized gymnasium that will double as an auditorium and featuring soaring ceilings supported by exposed wooden trusses, the 800-student school will be the replacement for a hodgepodge of aging buildings on two separate campuses, which have seen little maintenance in the last decade: Aberdeen Primary off N.C. 211, and Aberdeen Elementary on U.S. 1.

“This is just a wonderful addition for our kids, and everyone who goes to school in this part of the county,” said Aberdeen Commissioner Ken Byrd. “The aesthetics are beautiful. This will be a school to be very, very proud of, and we look forward to it.”

The $30.8 million building is now more than 40 percent complete after seven months of construction.

A Southern Legacy

The Moore County Board of Education bought the 22-acre school site off N.C. 5 across from the former Pit Golf Course for $180,000 in 2015. Despite the industrial presence that has long defined the character of the area between Aberdeen and Pinehurst, the schools anticipated that it was poised for residential growth.

But as it introduces the school to the community, Moore County Schools finds itself contending with one of the more unpleasant chapters in Aberdeen’s history. As chronicled over the years by The Pilot, within the town’s limits are few undeveloped properties that are more than a mile from one of the five locations that comprise the Aberdeen Pesticide Dump Site. For half of the 20th century, a series of pesticide companies disposed of waste from their production process.

The new Aberdeen school campus is between two of them, half a mile south of Fairway Six on the former Pit Golf Course and four-fifths of a mile north of the McIver Dump off Roseland Road. The school site itself is not on any watch list.

Disposal of technical-grade pesticide containers, pesticide dust and granular pesticide waste contaminated the 10-acre area the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now refers to as “Fairway Six.” The McIver Dump, where pesticide residues were dumped in the 1950s, covers a single acre.

The other three sites are “Farm Chemicals,” just south of N.C. 5 and west of the intersection with U.S. 1., where three successive companies converted pure pesticides to commercial products for agricultural use; the “Twin Sites” area, on 20 acres just west of Aberdeen Lake and about half a mile from the current Aberdeen Elementary campus; and the “Route 211” site, southeast of Aberdeen.

A major cleanup effort in the 1990s involved removing and cleaning thousands of tons of contaminated soil before replacing it. The EPA conducted its final inspections of the Aberdeen Dump Site in 2003. Since then, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality has performed reviews every five years.

The most recent Five-Year Review in September 2018, on file with the EPA on its website and readily accessible to the public, determined that measures taken over the last 30 years are still effectively “protective of human health and the environment.”

As of the 2013 Five-Year Review, “no human or ecological exposure pathways to contaminated groundwater” remained, and “appropriate Institutional Controls are in place to prevent future exposure to groundwater via potable wells that have been adversely impacted with concentrations of contaminants from the source.”

Moore County Schools also hired a national environmental engineering firm in 2015 and 2017 to conduct an exhaustive survey and analysis of the school site. That company, Building & Earth, concluded in a May 23, 2017 letter that there was “no evidence of recognized environmental conditions in connection with the property.”

Full Remediation

State environmental officials discovered the abandoned pesticide dumps in 1984. The sites date from the 1930s and 1940s, when burying chemical containers and byproducts was legal.

Once discovered, the soil and groundwater contamination spurred the EPA to conduct an emergency cleanup of all five sites, paid for from the federal Superfund.

After the EPA initiated legal action to recover the costs, the 10 “potentially responsible parties” agreed to pay $60 million and develop a long-term plan to manage contamination. Those companies included Novartis Crop Protection (formerly Ciba Geigy Corp.), DuPont, Olin Corp., Union Carbide Corp., Shell Oil Co., Bayer Corp., Mobil Oil Corp., Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corp., and Grower Service Corp.

At the time, there were no drinking wells installed in the area. Other potential risks included swimming in contaminated water or inhaling chemicals volatilized by heating groundwater for showering.

Remediating the Aberdeen Pesticide Dump Site involved a multi-pronged approach to reducing soil and groundwater contamination.

In the mid-1990s, more than 127,000 tons of soil from all five sites were treated by thermal desorption — a process similar to incineration, but at lower temperatures. The treated soil was tested and then returned to the original sites. Groundwater was also pumped up and treated to remove pesticides, and wells were installed to monitor contamination levels.

By 1999, consultants for the companies reported that remaining low concentrations of pesticides in the groundwater around the dump sites were dwindling naturally and created minimal hazard.

In 2000, 431 hybrid poplar trees were planted on the McIver Dump site in what’s called “phytoremediation” to extract the traces of inorganic contaminants — barium, manganese, zinc — in the groundwater and soil. Similar measures were applied to the Fairway Six site.

Though some of the monitoring wells were decommissioned in 2015, 11 wells continue to monitor the Fairway Six area. There are 22 wells between the Farm Chemicals and Twin Sites areas.

The groundwater analysis performed last year was consistent with prior results in showing stable areas of contamination. Most of the monitoring wells indicated decreasing levels of concentrations of pesticides. The owner of Cactus Creek Coffee, which now sits on the Farm Chemicals site, reported to investigators that no one had inquired about contaminants in over a decade

Jon Bornholm, a remedial project manager for the EPA, considered the remediation project a success overall.

“Levels of contaminants in the groundwater have either decreased or remained stable,” he said in the review. “None of the plumes are expanding as the source has been removed.”

And a topography map of the area shows that the school site sits almost at the highest point around. So any plumes or drainage that might occur in future years would be downhill away from the school.

Efficiency in Engineering

The two schools that the new Aberdeen elementary school will replace have both served the community for 70 years. Along with three contemporary schools that will open in Southern Pines and Pinehurst over the next two years, school officials intend for the N.C. 5 campus to outdo that, and in greater style.

When it got underway late last year, the Aberdeen school became the first project to be funded with the $103 million in general obligation bonds that almost 80 percent of Moore County voters approved in May of 2018.

Moore County Schools broke ground on a similar elementary school for Southern Pines this past week, and a new Pinehurst Elementary should be under construction by the end of the summer. Like McDeeds Creek Elementary opening on Camp Easter Road this fall, each of them will have room for 800 students.

“Everything is the same square feet: classrooms, art room, music room, gym, cafeteria, offices, all that’s the same for every single school all the way through,” John Birath, Moore County Schools’ director for operations, told Aberdeen’s town commissioners as they toured the construction site this week. “Program-wise, space-wise, everything’s identical.”

Town Commissioner Ken Byrd noted that the overall design of the schools will be a security upgrade in itself from the older campuses they replace.

At the new Aberdeen school, a single point of entry will be available to visitors during the school day. Until they are approved by school staff and the interior door is released for them to walk through into the school, they’ll be restricted to the front office. Doors into the cafeteria and at the end of each classroom wing will primarily serve as exit routes in the case of an emergency.

“(Southern Pines Mayor David McNeill) and our mayor, Robbie Farrell, have been two very strong advocates for new elementary schools here in the county,” Byrd said. “This is kind of like, I dreamed it, I thought it, and now here it is, it’s being built.”

Communal spaces like the cafeteria, full-size gymnasium, library, music and art rooms will be situated on the west side of the new school. On the eastern half, each of the three classroom wings extending out from the building’s spine will serve designated grade levels: pre-kindergarten through first, second and third grades, then fourth and fifth.

J.M. Thompson Company, the contractor in charge of McDeeds Creek, is also building the Aberdeen school. But McDeeds Creek’s campus is nearly 50 percent larger.

“This is more compact and more of a proportionate square (than McDeeds Creek), so the solution is a more compact plan,” said Birath.

Designed by SfL+a Architects of Raleigh, the Aberdeen school building is oriented to make the greatest possible use of natural light. Individual thermostats in each classroom will regulate the geothermal system that will heat and cool the entire school.

“The (schools) all share the same thermal barrier, the same philosophy of approach: Decrease our operating costs and minimize our expenses,” Birath said. “We see how often the operating budget increases for us to accommodate increase in cost, so we try to minimize that throughout as best we can.”

Wooden trusses made of glued laminated timber, pound for pound stronger than steel, are already in place in the gymnasium and hallways. They’ll remain exposed as a nod to the livelihood many 19th-century Aberdeen residents eked out from the surrounding pine forests producing timber, turpentine, pine resin and tar.

“It’s heavy-timber construction, which is sustainable, which will last the life of this building,” Birath said.

Off the Road

Aberdeen Town Commissioner Wilma Laney said that initially the school’s location did give her pause due to heavy traffic on N.C. 5. But she said that she’s satisfied with the school’s distance from the busy road.

“When you go up to Fayetteville, you see those schools right on the highway. Because Route 5 is a highway, you don’t think it’s going to be back this far, so right away I was happy about that,” she said.

By the time the school opens, turn lanes will be added on N.C. 5 for traffic coming from both directions.

Laney also said that she appreciated features like separate, fenced outdoor play areas for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students, a half dozen resource rooms, and pair of large spaces for creative activities. In the event that the school’s enrollment exceeds its capacity, the school will have the option of converting those flexible spaces to classrooms rather than stationing modular classroom buildings outside the school.

“Even though we’ve talked about it, I still couldn’t picture it, but now I can and I can’t wait to see it once it’s completed,” she said. “It seems like it was very well-thought-out.”

The Moore County Board of Education is expected to resume the process of determining a name for the new Aberdeen, Southern Pines and Pinehurst schools this winter. Prospective names that the schools considered and gathered public input on earlier this year included Blue’s Crossing Elementary, Aberdeen Crossing Elementary, and simply retaining the Aberdeen Elementary name.

Contact Mary Kate Murphy at (910) 693-2479 or mkmurhy@thepilot.com.

(2) comments

Leslie Nagy

Mary Kate you’ve done a phenomenal job reporting on the progress of our schools. As a Geography/Environmental Science major, I appreciate your use of topography, mitigation practices (phytoremediationðŸ‘ðŸ½), groundwater analysis, monitoring wells, contaminant stability... every scientific analysis you used was outstanding. Thank you for always understanding what an excellent reporter does, and doing it.

Kent Misegades

Finally a report on the pesticide history of the school site. Why wasn’t this reported before ground was broken so parents and taxpayers could be informed? Why do small children need a full gymnasium? A pre-engineered steel structure for the gym would likely have been less expensive than wooden. Doesn’t it seem odd that all four new schools have the same architects and builders? Weren’t multiple bids received?

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