Unknown risks associated with groundwater contamination have halted plans to turn the former Moore Square Salvation Army building into a temporary elementary school.
By a vote of 3 to 1 Tuesday, members of the Budget and Economic Development Committee denied a two-year lease with Exploris Charter School for the city-owned site. The vote will have to be finalized by the full City Council next week.
Councilor Eugene Weeks cast the dissenting vote.
With plans to expand, Exploris officials asked to use the Moore Square site as a temporary spot to for 150 children in kindergarten through fifth grader starting this fall.
Councilors said they want to work with Exploris to build the school, but hesitated on approving the lease because of the unknown risks associated with the site. Environmental studies have shown that the groundwater is contaminated with dry cleaning chemicals, and the city is in the process of applying for the Environmental Protection Agency’s brownfields status.
If the site were approved as a brownfield it would lower the burden on the future developer to be responsible for cleaning up the site. In a follow up email to the Record, Deputy Planning Director Ken Bowers said that as a general rule, contamination increases risk and cost, but he’s unaware of the extent of the contamination.
“I just have a hard time saying yes to putting children in a spot that we know has environmental contamination from dry cleaning fluid,” said Mayor Nancy McFarlane.
At this point, the risks from the pollution are unknown, and Councilors said that the additional research that would be needed wouldn’t work with Exploris’ tight construction deadline.
Exploris Director Summer Clayton said that if the city were to go forward with the lease, parents would be made aware of the contamination. With still another month left to apply, the school has already received more than 160 applications for 150 possible spots.
“There’s a need for another elementary school in the community,” she said.
If the timeline needed to be extended, Clayton said the school could open in October rather than August.
Regardless, Councilors were still uncomfortable with the possibility of putting children at risk until more studies could be done.
Ben Steel of Empire Properties asked Councilors if the same consideration was made when Councilors approved the property’s use as a temporary shelter where charities could feed the homeless.
City Attorney Thomas McCormick said that while there was nothing in the agreement, the site would only be used on the weekends for a significantly less time than students would be in school. The population, he said, would be mostly adults rather than children who are more susceptible to these types of contaminants.