NORTHPORT, NY — Northport Middle School, which closed in January after high levels of mercury and benzene were found in sanitary systems on school grounds, might reopen in the fall, officials said.
A report by environmental firm PW Grosser Consulting found the school safe to occupy but made several recommendations:
Relocating the bus depot off-site
Ensuring contaminated air does not exist in the plumbing and sanitary systems
Preparing a Soil and Materials Management Plan for the track field
Reviewing safety instructions for art supplies and disposing of them if need be
Performing proper maintenance and repairs to maintain indoor air quality
Increasing humidity in the building
Clearing organic materials from roof drains and having them inspected
Redirecting surface runoff away from the L-wing hallway
Performing routine maintenance on the HVAC systems, including duct cleaning
"PWGC has not identified an environmental concern that renders the school unsafe to occupy," the firm wrote in its nearly-7,000-page report. "While several items of concern were identified during the investigation, each is addressable and does not require the school to be closed to implement."
The district's board of education voted unanimously to accept the findings of the PWGC report earlier this month. Superintendent Robert Banzer said the district began "aggressively addressing" the findings.
"We will continue to work with individual families to address concerns and answer their questions," Banzer said.
John Nobles, a parent of a graduated eighth-grader and an incoming sixth-grader, was a vocal advocate of ensuring the district did its due diligence in protecting the health of students and teachers. In a letter to Banzer and the board of education, he praised PWGC and the district for its report.
"Bravo to PWGC! Great job on the study at NMS - It was a herculean effort," he wrote. "Bravo to the District for finally undertaking and following through on these lingering issues from decades and decades. The report is many things, but, thorough is certainly the best word to describe it!"
Parents made their voices heard early in the calendar year after high levels of mercury were found in a cesspool 10 feet from the building; a mercury level of 632 ppm was found in the cesspool —more than 170-times the actionable level of 3.7 ppm. At high levels, mercury can damage the brain, kidneys and developing fetuses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry.
Benzene harmfully effects bone marrow and can cause a decrease in red blood cells, leading to anemia, according to the CDC. It can also cause excessive bleeding and affect the immune system, increasing the chance for infection.
Cleanup at Northport Middle School began in March, as contaminated sludge and liquid were pumped out of septic tanks and leaching pools. There was no detection of mercury concentration in vapor samples collected, PWGC said.
Displaced middle school students, who had been dispersed through the district, could return to their usual building — provided schools don't remain closed due to the coronavirus outbreak. Seventh-graders were relocated to East Northport Middle School, while eighth-graders got an early taste of Northport High School. Sixth-graders went back to Norwood Avenue Elementary.
PWGC investigated the site at 11 Middleville Road to evaluate subsurface and indoor environmental conditions following years of complaints from students and staff regarding "musty" and "perfumed" smells and health concerns, the firm said. The investigation included a review of documents dating to site selection and construction, as well as environmental reports on the building. The firm also conducted investigations of soil, groundwater and air.
"The purpose for this investigation was to determine if there were existing environmental conditions and exposure pathways at the school that might result in adverse health effects for the students and staff occupying the school," the firm wrote in its investigation.
PWGC pointed to problems with six sanitary systems; stormwater and roof drain dry wells; a leaching pool connected to science classroom sinks; three underground storage tanks near the boiler room; art classrooms in two wings; and past use of the property for farming. Chemicals such as petroleum, paints and cleaners were found in the building.
There were an "abundance" of odor and health complaints related to rooms in the G, K and L wings, PWGC said. The school also has a history of chemical storage, which led to a spill in the K-wing warehouse in 2017, according to the firm.
Some concerns have already been addressed, PWGC wrote. A former G-wing leaching pool was cleaned; an investigation into the presence of arsenic within track field soil was done with a new recommendation being issued; and musty odors within the building were reduced or eliminated after the roof drain was cleaned, PWGC said.
Nobles encouraged the district to post to its website an ongoing maintenance plan with a schedule which would be updated as the district follows through on remaining PWGC recommendations.
"Confidence and transparency for if/when issues arise at NMS will be a running record to compliment the PWGC report," he said. "This will allow patterns to be seen as issues arise. I want to thank Mr. Banzer, the BOE, and the Sub Committee, for listening and being brave enough to right the wrongs of the past!"
For eighth-graders, the closure marked a premature end to their middle school life. Carlee Ferrara, who is entering ninth grade at Northport High School, said she was happy to read the middle school was deemed safe by PWGC. Being taken out of school was a struggle, she said.
"It was very abrupt," Ferrara, 14, told Patch. "It was hard to realize, as I was going to the high school, that I wouldn’t really get any closure. I never thought one day going to the middle school was going to be my last day in that school."
Ferrara lost her lacrosse season and the chance to captain the team; her gym teacher; library access; and eighth grade party, she said.
"I always knew it was safe," she said. "I have some health problems, and I never got sick or missed a day of school. I never got headaches. It felt safe to me. It was much more than just a building. There were so many things you could do at that school that other schools didn’t have. I just feel like getting taken out of the school, we lost all of the privileges. I’m sad that my time there was cut short, and I never really got closure."
Julie Hendricks-Atkins, a mother of a student who finished seventh grade, as well as an incoming fourth-grader, said the school's closure in January was disruptive to her child both educationally and socially. She and fellow families have been waiting for the PWGC result for half a year, she said.
"Now that they’re finally here, I’ve been talking to a lot of parents who actually have children in the school, and we’re all so, so happy that this report from PWGC kind of says everything we’ve been hoping and waiting to hear," she said. "My daughter is so happy that she’ll be able to go back to her school."
Middle school students found themselves in different schools from mid-January through mid-March, until the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of all schools in the state. Sixth-graders lost access to technology, woodworking and home and careers courses, as well as their larger gym and lockers, Hendricks-Atkins said. But with safety in mind, officials made the best decision they could with what they knew at the time, she said.
"It was really an unfortunate decision that they had to make."
Some parents organized a "Sick Out" rally in January over health concerns related to the mercury findings. PWGC committed that month to a full environmental investigation.
A prior past questions related to air quality and the improper storage and disposal of potential contaminants, ABC 7 reported. T. The school has faced