You are here

Is Elmira High School safe? State agencies will address contamination questions


SIZ - Simple Image Zoom

There are lingering concerns about industrial wastes buried under Elmira High School.
(Photo: Jeff Murray / Staff photo)

New York state plans to accelerate efforts to clean up industrial contamination at Elmira High School.

People concerned about the lingering effects of industrial toxins at the school will have a chance to quiz state officials Thursday about cleanup efforts and health and safety issues.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Health are prepared to give the public a detailed look Thursday at what the state is doing to clean up decades-old contamination left behind by nearly a century of heavy industrial activity.

Among the projects that will take place this summer:

  • About 28,000 tons of soil will be excavated prior to replacement of a parking lot and bus loop on the southeast side of the high school. An estimated 6,800 tons of soil contaminated with industrial toxins will be taken off-site for disposal.
  • An expedited comprehensive investigation will define the nature and extent of the contamination below ground on the athletic field area, providing a framework for the cleanup plan for this portion of the site and allow for construction to begin in 2019.
  • School foundations will be reinspected for cracks, which will be sealed if necessary, and there will be more air sampling from beneath and within the school.
  • Additionally, there will be an expanded investigation of possible contamination beyond the boundaries of the school property.

"Our top priority is always ensuring that students, faculty, and visitors are not coming in contact with any of the contamination found below-ground on the site, and these expedited actions will further ensure the contamination is being more quickly eliminated from the site," DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said.

The Elmira City School District bought the South Main Street property in 1977 and opened what was then Southside High School two years later.

Prior to that, the site was used for heavy industrial activity for nearly a century, but public concerns about health effects on students, faculty and others didn't surface until the 1990s.

Those worries bubbled up again this spring after a Star-Gazette report on numerous Southern Tier sites still contaminated with industrial pollutants, including Elmira High School.

Unisys, successor to Remington Rand, one of the last major industrial users of the site, signed a consent order with DEC and is paying to clean up the property.

There will be no formal presentation at Thursday's event.

Instead, representatives from DEC, the state Health Department and Unisys will be on hand to answer questions, and there will be tables and displays set up to illustrate the history of the site, current and planned cleanup projects, the potential for exposure and health-related questions.

State officials have repeatedly maintained that while contaminants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and trichloroethylene still linger under parts of the school property, there is sufficient grass and other cover to prevent casual exposure.

But Walter Hang, president of Ithaca-based Toxics Targeting Inc., said he walked the property recently and photographed several areas where bare ground could provide a pathway to exposure.

"There are literally dozens of areas all over the school grounds where bare earth lacks turf cover," Hang said. "Many of these areas are in athletic fields, volleyball courts, entrance areas and gathering places at the school. The public can come into direct contact with toxic contamination documented in those areas."

Environmental data analyst Walter Hang took this photo of bare ground at Elmira High School to show there is risk of exposure to buried toxins.

Seggos reiterated that "the public is safe and not at risk from any contamination," and that while DEC wants to see the cleanup proceed as quickly as possible, the work has to be done in a thoughtful and methodical way.

Fortunately, unlike some industrial pollution situations across the state, in this case there is a responsible company willing and able to carry out the cleanup, he said.

"We are holding the company accountable for what they did on this property. They have not resisted our efforts to accelerate the work," Seggos said. "I'm proud of the work staff is doing on this. We will not leave this community until the work is done."

If you go

What: Update on industrial waste remediation projects at Elmira High School.
When: 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. June 14.
Where: The gymnasium at Elmira High School, 777 S. Main St. in Elmira.