The meeting, orchestrated by officials with the Richmond City Health District offices of the Virginia Department of Health, was a first between the two sides since controversy boiled over in July over the district’s decision to reopen the school in the city’s Battery Park neighborhood.
Though offering promising hints of future agreement, the meeting also produced heated clashes between Richmond Schools Chief Operating Officer Andy Hawkins and Art Burton, a community organizer who founded Parents for Life in 2001 around efforts to close the school.
“We’ve reviewed all of the EPA documents, the DEQ documents — there has never been any finding of any problem at Norrell at all,” Hawkins said, his voice rising to drown out objections by Burton. “It’s not built on a landfill. It has never been … any documentable proof. We’ve tested it for everything we can think of to test. There is absolutely zero — zero methane in that area. There is absolutely no health hazard whatsoever.”
The school closed in 2007 after flooding by Tropical Storm Ernesto, but for more than five years before that, Parents for Life had staged protests at the school and petitioned the district to close it — and nearby Whitcomb Elementary — based on more than 50 years of documents chronicling the schools’ construction on top of the Fells Street landfill, a trash dump that was finally capped in the late 1970s.
The documents, previously reported on by Richmond magazine, include correspondence and reports by city government, EPA, DEQ, FEMA and local fire officials, as well as verified reports of explosive levels of methane gas both in and around the building, in addition to the presence of toxin- and heavy-metals-rich leachates seeping from around the landfill.
Those reports begin in the 1950s with a letter from a city building official to schools officials recounting a fire started by a worker’s cigarette that burned on the ground near recently dug footings during construction. Most recently, a 2007 FEMA report, compiled after Ernesto, noted the presence of “explosive levels” of methane still detected on or near the school site.
Danny Avula, the health department’s deputy director, did his best to broker a peace between the two sides, stressing that his own efforts to communicate with the state Department of Environmental Quality and the federal Department of Environmental Quality and determine whether there was any immediate threat at the school had largely allayed his concerns.
Richmond Public Schools officials have repeatedly indicated that Norrell’s reopening is temporary — a measure to relieve crowding at Martin Luther King Middle during its renovation.
“In a review of the history of the test results ... I feel really good about the testing that was done,” Avula said. “DEQ says time and time again that there are absolutely no concerns about off-gassing in that area.”
Avula, seeking resolution, said the Norrell controversy seemed to owe the most to a failure by Richmond schools officials to seek public input in the process to reopen the school, and he asked Burton and other community members concerned about the school to name further tests and steps they would like to see followed in order to allay their own concerns about the school’s safety.
Even as he defended the school’s safety, Hawkins was hard-pressed to dispute Avula’s criticism of the process, acknowledging that the decision to reopen Norrell was a quick one without public input, but he added that it was out of necessity as the district scrambled to relocate the early childhood program quickly ahead of the beginning of the school year.
“Would I have liked to have had more time?” Hawkins asked. “God I would have.”
Avula agreed Richmond Schools efforts to reach the community had fallen short, leading at least in part to “too many fall-off-the-cliff issues” that resulted in the current acrimony between the district and members of the community. He also expressed concern with the division’s construction of a new playground on the site, as well as Richmond officials' plan to keep some students in the school for as long as two years rather than the one year on which his office had based its own assessments.
Kim Allen, another member of the community opposed to the school’s reopening, called the district’s lack of soil testing ahead of the playground equipment’s installation “alarming,” to which Avula replied, “I agree with you.”
On at least two occasions, the meeting dissolved into raised voices and accusations of lying or bending of the facts between a clearly agitated Hawkins and Burton.
As the meeting concluded, in answering Avula’s request for further tests and steps community members would like to see, Burton asked for ongoing daily monitoring for methane as well as soil testing for contaminants around the school.
Avula stopped short of promising that testing, though he did not rule it out. In the interim he promised first that the Richmond District Health Department would prepare a document that “really assures the safety of the children” in the school.