Education 101: Build Schools on Safe Land

UPDATE: To support this legislation through, click here.


Rep. David Segal and other members of the Rhode Island General Assembly are proposing legislation to ensure that public schools in Rhode Island are built on non-toxic land. The legislation is scheduled to be introduced on February 28, 2008. The text of the bill is available here.

Several new schools, including the Adelaide Avenue High School and the Springfield Street School, have been dealing with lingering questions and problems due to the fact that they were built on sites that were formerly used for toxic dumping. We need to do a better job evaluating sites for public schools and ensuring that no history of toxic use is going to make the public school an unsafe place for children and adults.

Fortunately, there is national movement on this issue. The Bush administration recently established federal guidelines to protect school sitings from toxic contamination. More information on this is available here.

Rhode Island Legal Services provided the following information on the proposed legislation:

Support H-7577, A Bill to Promote the Selection of Environmentally Safe School Sites

Bi-partisan bill sponsored by Representatives Segal, Diaz, Moffitt, McNamara, Slater

Cash strapped school districts across Rhode Island are building schools on contaminated sites, putting children and teachers at risk of exposure to harmful pollutants. This legislation consists of two reforms that would ensure that local school districts do not site schools on property that is contaminated by pollution left on the site as a result of former industrial or commercial uses:

Section 1 of the legislation bars the use of state school construction aid dollars for cleaning up hazardous materials (other than petroleum) at a site. School districts in RI have chosen to site schools on contaminated sites because they are cheap to acquire–and the cost of cleaning them up has been passed on to the State. School construction funds were never intended to be used to clean up pollution—either polluters should pay for clean ups or there are Brownfields clean up funds for that purpose. Currently, RI Department of Education regulations deem costs for cleaning up contaminated sites as presumptively not reimbursable by the state. This legislation takes that one step further and bars the use of any state school construction aid for the purpose of cleaning up contamination (“remediation”) at a given site.

Section 2 of the legislation bars the siting of schools on certain kinds of contaminated sites. These sites include garbage dumps, which state law identifies as any site where more than 3 cubic yards of hazardous or solid waste was disposed; and also, includes sites formerly used for industrial or commercial purposes that are too contaminated to be used for residential purposes without any clean up, and where the likely source of contamination is from a former use at the site. Currently there are no restrictions on using contaminated sites for schools.

If enacted several years ago, this legislation would have prevented the siting of schools such as the Carnevale Elementary and Springfield Middle Schools (built on the site of the former Providence City Dump), the Adelaide Avenue High School (built on the site of the highly contaminated Gorham Silver Manufacturing Company), and would prevent the siting of the Woonsocket Middle School proposed to be built on the polluted Hamlet Avenue Mill Complex site.

There is also this informative report from Rhode Island Legal Services and the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, which outlines why Rhode Island needs to work on avoiding placing schools on or near contaminated land.


13 thoughts on “Education 101: Build Schools on Safe Land

  1. I’m sure the plan was to steal money from the taxpayers, but I suspect the perps were the developers who bought the land and sold it to the city for a school site.

    Developers have, IMHO, way too much clout in this state. Or, perhaps more accurately, the developer/contractor axis that benefits from putting up buildings.

  2. I applaud the legislators in making what should have been part of the process all along.

    Massachusetts and many other states require an Environmental Site Assessment to test the soil for toxic contamination. Why is a 21E assessment not mandatory here in RI? Secondly, any toxic cleanup would be the burden of the Seller or Developer – not the Cities or Towns and that Developer is responsible and should pay not only for the cleanup but a heafty fine. So, if it puts them out of business it successfully sends a message that this won’t be tolerated. If they knowingly did this sort of dirty deal – they should have everything taken away and lose the ability to EVER do development or sell real estate!

    Additionally, if it was a UNION job – then the UNION is out lots of money to pay just as the developer. Penalties are weak on many fronts – makes it easy for those to break the laws to know the gain typically outweighs the end loss. We need to tip the scales and this is at least a start.

  3. This illustrates a long-term problem with our current industrial practices. Generating so much toxic crap will make it more and more difficult to find sites for much anything in the future.

  4. Hi Klaus,

    Believe it or not, developers aren’t really the problem in this case. A lot of municipalities get stuck with contaminated property as a result of factories closing up.

    Developers try to avoid touching the land to begin with. Those who try to do something with it tend to default on the taxes, and the city is once again stuck with a contaminated plot of land.

    Basically, at least in Providence, Zoning Boards will use a loophole to permit residential building on these polluted industrial sites. The city then sends the bill for clean up costs to the state.

    The reasoning behind this is that the city needs schools and we have this land that no one else will touch – plus, the state will foot most of the bill. Sounds nice, until kids and teachers start getting all kinds of health problems.

    Currently, only 5 states have some kind of laws on the books concerning where schools can be built. This kind of thing happens in MA as well, despite the 21E assessment mentioned by Suzanne.

  5. Also, Suzanne is right that the polluter should be paying for clean up costs. However, that is a big challenge in reality. Most of these polluters are rich,, multi-national corporations with a lot of $. They can drag out things in court for years.

    Regardless, I think everyone agrees it’s a bad idea to keep building schools on toxic waste sites.

  6. recent studies show that a polluted environment lowers IQ in children. with so many kids already suffering from allergies and learning disorders we have to take this seriously.

  7. Thanks for the explanation, Alex.

    I’m always happy to learn something. And it makes sense that the cities get stuck with these sites.

  8. There’s another pretty heated discussion about this over on RI’s Future, if anyone wants to weigh in over there.

  9. That’s awesome Alex!!! I sent mine Tuesday to the legislators – – but I did it again this way. I am going to forward this to everyone I know in Rhode Island. Thank you!

  10. Thanks for your support. If we want this bill to pass, we’re going to need a lot more support from parents and students. A former Woonsocket Councilman is defending building new schools in that city on contaminated land.

    To be clear, I think his intentions are good. However, there are misconceptions out there that make it seem like it’s Ok to build schools on contaminated land. The practice of building schools on contaminated land has been going on for decades now, and it’s going to take a big push from people to change that.

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