Dallas ISD's newest school built on contaminated land

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A FOX 4 Investigation uncovered Jose "Joe" May Elementary is built on contaminated land. (Photo by FOX 4, March 2016)

October 21, 2016 Update: Dallas ISD School Board President Dan Micciche told FOX 4 he is in support of creating a new policy that would require the district to inform the school board and public before a school is built on contaminated land.

In an e-mail to FOX 4, Micciche said, "Yes, I think the board and the public should be notified.  Every child deserves to go to school in a safe, secure, and healthy environment."

FOX 4 has also learned that Trustee Miguel Solis is working on proposing a notification policy in response to our investigation.

Original Story:

A FOX 4 Investigation has uncovered that Dallas ISD’s newest school is built on contaminated land.

The contamination at Jose “Joe” May Elementary School in Northwest Dallas is serious enough that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has stepped in to oversee cleanup of the property.

The concern stems from contaminated soil left behind by a gas station and dry cleaner that operation on the site from the 1960s to 2012. According to the TCEQ, those chemicals can get in the air inside the school if not addressed.

Public records reviewed by FOX 4 show the school district is monitoring the air quality inside the school for harmful chemicals and has been doing so for months.

An August 18 laboratory report shows indoor air quality at Joe May Elementary met state safety levels just four days before the school opened on August 22, 2016.

Earlier environment reports show some DISD officials have known about the contaminated soil for at least two years, even before the school was approved to be built.

Yet, FOX 4 uncovered that district officials did not inform the school board trustee over Joe May Elementary, nor did they inform parents, about the site’s history.

School Board Trustee Miguel Solis didn’t know until FOX 4 shared its findings. Joe May Elementary is in his district.

“You can always leave it up to FOX 4 to answer any unanswered questions,” Solis said. “I do appreciate that we have good quality journalism that's out there trying to make sure the community has all the answers."

We shared the environmental test results with University of Texas at Arlington chemistry professor Dr. Kevin Schug. He has no involvement in the project.

“I would think twice about putting an elementary school there,” Dr. Schug said. “I think there is cause for concern.”

Dr. Schug said chemicals found at the site can cause health problems if children and adults are exposed over a period of time.

“Gasoline contains many things that make the car go, but also contain compounds that would be harmful to get into your body to breathe in on a continuous basis,” Dr. Schug said. “Chlorinated solvents can be dangerous to your liver.”

Children, in general, are at greater risk of exposure to chemicals than adults, according to Dr. Schug.

“Understanding the history of that site, they're now in a situation where they have to continually monitor the site,” Dr. Schug said.

Dr. Schug added that outdoor air quality is not as much of a concern because chemicals are able to dissipate more freely and quickly in the open air.

The district has taken some action.

In April 2015, Dallas ISD hired a company to excavate 350 cubic yards of soil from the school site, after the district held a ceremonial groundbreaking.

Then, at the instruction of state regulators with the TCEQ, Dallas ISD installed a vapor barrier system.

“That is essentially a sheet of plastic that will prevent vapors from coming up from the ground and through the building,” said Dr. Schug.

FOX 4 also showed Dr. Schug test results from after the vapor barrier was installed.

Based on his analysis of the most recent data from August 2016, Dr. Schug said the barrier is working.

Chemical levels inside the school were below levels believed to cause harm and are not a concern, but Dr. Schug said there is little research on the long-term effects of exposure to small amounts of chemicals.

“There is a lack of knowledge in science in general about what low exposure to chemicals for long periods of time can do," he said.

The person in charge of district operations during all of this, Wanda Paul, stepped down in June.

DISD’s new Chief Operations Officer, Scott Layne, has only been on the job since the beginning of the current school year.

FOX 4 asked Layne if it was the right decision to build a school on a contaminated site.

“Well, if you look at sites now days, any land you purchase, with a dry cleaner, launder mat, gas station, concrete plant, there are so many types of things that can occur on a site,” Layne said. “So, I don't think it's unusual to have a site that may have contamination. The important thing is to properly address it before construction begins.”

But FOX 4 learned, out of 227 DISD schools, Joe May Elementary is the only one being monitored by the TCEQ for contaminated soil.

FOX 4 also asked Layne if the public should have been informed.

“I think it would be a concern if there were ongoing issues with the land or the property,” Layne said. “My understanding is the TCEQ was involved in the process, and the district met the requirements to ensure a safe site for the students. So, there really wasn't a problem. The problem was taken care of prior to the building being built.”

However, the district’s own records show, contaminants are still in the soil. Under state supervision, the district has also treated and is continuing to monitor contaminated groundwater under the site. That water is not currently used for drinking water.

A TCEQ spokesperson wrote in an October 14th e-mail to FOX 4, “Based on the current information provided, additional actions will be needed to address the site. Additional actions include further assessment of contamination, documentation of associated activities, and may include additional remediation and/or controls.”

The TCEQ also wrote in a previous e-mail, “We would not expect adverse health effects as a result of exposure to the reported concentrations."

Parents at the school told FOX 4, they’re still worried.

“I’m just in shock,” said Jesus Perlta, the father of a Joe May student.

“This is my first time hearing about it,” said parent Stephanie Espinosa. 

After talking with FOX 4 outside the school on October 11, Espinosa went inside to talk with the principal.

“They just found out three hours ago, can't tell me much,” Espinosa said. “[The principal said they are] going to send a letter to parents ASAP."

Espinosa said the district should have told parents before approving the site for a school.

Dr. Schug agreed.

“Given the chance to debate the placement of this school on this site in a public forum, my guess is it wouldn't have been built there," Dr. Schug said.

Dallas ISD is planning to use part of its new $1.6 billion bond package to build nine schools.

Layne told FOX 4 he would inform the school board in closed session of any contaminated sites before they are purchased.

Layne also said he would start putting reports about the air quality at Joe May Elementary School on the district’s website.

This investigation started as tip from the public. If you would like submit a tip or story idea, please e-mail iteam@kdfwfox4.com.

Letter to Jose "Joe" May Elementary School Parents by Vicki Chen on Scribd