Tropical Storm Ernesto assisted the group, Parents for Life, in September 2006 when heavy rains flooded the Battery Park area where Norrell is located, inundating the neighborhood, park and the school site with rain and raw sewage from a collapsed sewer trunk line.
Now, with an 8-to-1 vote by the Richmond School Board meaning Norrell again will serve as a school building for about 260 preschool children displaced by construction and renovations at Martin Luther King Middle, members of Parents for Life are pledging to stage protests and “any means of civil disobedience at our disposal” to ensure Norrell is again closed.
“We’re going to call for [Superintendent Yvonne] Brandon’s head if we have to,” says Art Burton, a community organizer who was among the leaders of Parents for Life when it was founded in 2001. “Brandon knows. For her to wish this on anybody, it’s unacceptable. She knows of the feelings around this. For her to try to take us back to this, it’s unconscionable, really.”
School system officials are insisting Norrell is safe to reopen as a temporary home for its East End preschool “Center for Excellence,” citing the fact that the school has in fact been open since 2007 for city Parks and Recreation activities, including a boxing academy. More recently, it served as a temporary home to one of the city’s library branches.
But what Burton considers unconscionable — and what divided the black community in the years between 2001 and 2006 — is that Norrell and its sister school, Whitcomb Elementary, were constructed as segregated schools and were built on or near the site of former city trash dumps.
Those dumps represented dangers both metaphorical and real to Burton and other members of Parents for Life.
City and school system documents obtained and reviewed by Richmond magazine that span from 1956 when construction began on the schools all the way to 2001, chronicle a 50-year struggle to control — and sometimes downplay — dangerous levels of methane gas seeping up through the soil and into both the Norrell and Whitcomb buildings.
A 1964 letter from the city’s department of public utilities informed school officials that a worker’s cigarette had ignited an area of ground that burned for at least two hours with what was described as a “gentle flame.”
Both schools were closed by resolution of the Richmond School Board in 1976 — the measure was symbolic, as the city’s Bureau of Fire had already done so in December of the previous year — and remained closed until 1977 while extensive methane control systems were installed. These included a series of eight "flares" that looked like small oil derricks, used to burn off methane before it could build up to explosive levels. The flares remained in operation on the school site until at least 2001.
In spite of this, an April 2000 analysis of one of the wells that fed these flares at Norrell registered potentially explosive methane levels.
But school system officials insist that those dangerous conditions no longer exist. The dump — it was not technically a landfill, according to state and federal regulatory agency definition, because it predated laws regulating landfills — was closed more than 60 years ago.
Richmond Public Schools Chief Operating Officer P. Andy Hawkins, who is overseeing last-minute renovations to Norrell in advance of students arriving on Sept. 10 (pre-k programs start a week after regular school), says the science indicates that most dumps continue to emit dangerous levels of methane only for about 20 years. And recent testing by the school system shows that there is no methane present at all in Norrell.
An official with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality says that while 20 years is an often referenced time frame, there is no exact measure when determining how long it will take solid waste to break down enough that it no longer emits dangerous levels of methane.
“I’ve heard said 20 years,” says Kathryn Perszyk, solid waste permit coordinator with the state, but “it could be 50 years — or it could be more. If there was still landfill gas [in 2001] it could be there is a pathway for landfill gas to still be measured in there.”
Hawkins says no measurable gas remains.
“I’m not aware of any studies that were done in that timeframe back in 2001,” Hawkins says, but “if we had any concerns or if our inspectors — they’re independent vendors—- had come back and said we have a methane gas problem, we would not be going to Norrell.
“We don’t have any concerns whatsoever with any environmental concerns out at Norrell,” Hawkins says.
In an interview Wednesday, Hawkins indicated he would provide a copy of the most recent testing for methane, as well as for mold and other potential health hazards, at Norrell that has occurred “every day since July 25.” As of today, that testing report had not yet been received.
As to concerns that the toxic swill that lapped at the school’s doors after Ernesto might present new hazardous conditions for young students, Victoria Oakley, the school system’s chief academic officer, cites the continual use of the building during the past five years. “The building is pristine,” Oakley says. “There are classrooms in there ready to go.”
Antione Green, a community activist and former president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters, says he’s concerned as much with the perception that accompanies placing predominantly black, predominantly low-income children in a school located on a former dump site as he is with the haste with which school officials announced their plan.
“My issue with it now is basically in light of the dialogue that we’ve had over the past school year about closing three of our most academically successful schools, we now find ourselves reopening another school that we all know to have been built on a landfill,” Green says. “Wouldn’t it make sense to solve that problem of under-enrollment by including those students in a school [that’s underpopulated]?”
Oakley says the decision to use Norrell was based on a desire to keep students close to their neighborhoods — all of the schools considered for closure during the ongoing school rezoning process are in the West End and on South Side — and to keep them all in one building.
In fact, Oakley says Parents for Life were not a factor in the decision to close Norrell in the first place, instead citing declining enrollment that necessitated closure of some RPS schools. “While there may have been rumors in the community, there was no verifiable evidence that we had a methane gas problem. We certainly wouldn’t have put children in harm’s way.”
Schools officials say they plan a series of open house events at Norrell for the public after Sept. 10.
Burton says protesters will be there. He also promises that a similar presence will be in attendance at the School Board’s meeting on Tuesday (Sept. 4), the first day that regular school returns to session after the summer break.
Burton calls Norrell a "sick school" and says that while a tropical storm may have been a defining factor in closing it, “doo-doo up to the door” didn’t stop plans by schools officials at the time to reopen. Rather, he says, countering Oakley's comment, it was Parents for Life prepared to take drastic action that caused RPS to back off in the 11th hour.
“The day before the school was going to [re]open... [we were] going to handcuff ourselves to the door. Our last resort was civil disobedience. That’s where we were,” he says. “We don’t need to go back to this conversation of whether it’s a landfill or whether it’s off-gassing or whether it’s safe. We’ve done all this before.”
Burton recounted his side of a phone conversation with School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page earlier this week: “I said it’s not about ... the tests. It’s environmental racism. We fought to get off the dump. Why should we have to turn around and go back?”