W-B Area Officials: We’re Going ‘above And Beyond’ To Ensure Safety At High School
Wilkes-Barre Area School District and state environmental officials have been meeting and exchanging emails about how to follow requirements for building a new high school on an old mine site in Plains Twp., according to a review of state records.
Critics are derisively calling it “Mine Shaft High” on social media. But school district Solicitor Raymond Wendolowski says the site is “perfectly safe” as long as barriers are in place to prevent direct exposure to anything that could be harmful.
The state and the district are working closely on the project, and the state encourages reusing of old mining sites called “greyfields,” Wendolowski said. The district expects to get a
$1 million grant for the project from the state Department of Community and Economic Development, Wendolowski added.
The district is buying the 80-acre site from Pagnotti Enterprises for $4.25 million. The site was “repeatedly disturbed by mining activities,” and was used “as a mine spoil dump from deep mining” and “as a culm ash disposal site as part of a mine reclamation project,” a 2014 report said.
The district plans to build a new high school there to merge the district’s three high schools — GAR, Coughlin and Meyers. The consolidated high school is expected to open in the 2021-22 school year.
“What we are doing is placing 2,400 students in harm’s way as there is no way we can be 100-percent sure the contamination is completely safe,” said Richard Holodick, a member of the anti-consolidation group Save Our Schools.
The district plans to use 22 acres on the 80-acre site for the new high school. The construction cost is expected to exceed $100 million.
“We are going above and beyond what we have to do to make sure everything is safe,” Superintendent Brian Costello said.
The Citizens’ Voice has reviewed project records provided by the state Department of Environmental Protection. The records provide details about what the district is doing in response to elevated levels of arsenic found from drilling borings to test soil on the site.
“All land has those natural metals,” Costello said, explaining the “simplest solutions” are covering the land with the building and pavement.
“Our valley was mined,” Costello added, noting the district’s building plans are routine for the area.
The arsenic on the site is not getting into a water supply, which wouldn’t be issue anyway because the school will get water from a public system, Costello said.
DEP records provide details about how the district will cover and cap areas on the site that will not be covered by the building or pavement. The process involves adding layers of clean fill — uncontaminated solid material that includes soil, rock and stone — and topsoil.
A DEP record about a July 27 inspection of the site said a “silt pond will be capped with 8 feet of fill and an asphalt parking lot.” Athletic fields and an outdoor classroom area planned for the site “will be capped with 1 foot of clean fill (a combination of imported fill and material from on-site) plus an additional foot of topsoil,” that record said.
Tetra Tech Inc., a consultant for the district, recommended “the placement of an engineering control or cap” involving clean fill and topsoil to eliminate “the direct contact exposure pathway to impacted soil,” according to a Jan. 8 letter to Costello.
The district drilled borings to test soil deep under the surface and collected 47 soil samples from 41 soil borings.
“No obvious evidence of contamination was reportedly detected during completion of the soil borings and groundwater was not encountered,” Tetra Tech said.
Testing showed elevated levels of arsenic in 39 of the 47 samples.
“It should be noted that arsenic is a naturally occurring metal that can also be found in native soils throughout Pennsylvania in concentrations that exceed the MSCs,” Tetra Tech reported.
MSCs are medium specific concentrations that provide soil and groundwater cleanup concentrations based on the property use, either residential or nonresidential.
“Using pavement, buildings and clean soil cover is a typical method for elimination of the direct contact pathway,” Tetra Tech said.
In the Sept. 5 email to DEP officials, Samuel A. Stiner of the Borton-Lawson engineering firm said “a majority of the high arsenic soil borings are located under proposed impervious surfaces.” The district plans a cap depth of 24 inches of clean material for “the multi-use field and potential outdoor seating area,” which “will be heavily utilized,” Stiner said.
“Moderately used areas will have a cap depth of 12 inches, and steep slopes and other rarely used areas utilize a 6-inch cap to prevent direct contact,” Stiner said.
Stiner also wrote to the Luzerne Conservation District about the project on Sept. 5.
“All areas, which tested high in arsenic will not be disturbed,” Stiner said. “With the exception of 2 borings (located outside the project limits) all areas high in arsenic will receive a larger amount of fill material atop the high arsenic locations creating an even greater buffer from the arsenic.”
One area had an arsenic level at a depth of 8 feet below, and 10.5 feet of fill material will be added on top of the existing grade, Stiner explained.
The district plans to use on-site material as capping material because “for the most part” it “is void of mine refuse,” Stiner said in the Sept. 5 email. Because excavations are “needed to accommodate the proposed development,” coal ash will need “to be recapped elsewhere on site,” Stiner also said.
“Any ash that is unearthed while operating under the surfacing permit, will be placed, compacted and capped per the surface mining permit,” he said.
Tetra Tech noted “the volume of ash waste at the site makes its removal impractical.”
In the Sept. 5 letter to the Luzerne Conservation District, Stiner referred to an on-site meeting Aug. 1 with DEP Pottsville District Mining Office personnel. The mining office determined “the groundwater monitoring wells were no longer necessary and could/should be properly closed or abandoned, all the conditions related to coal ash placement (except for the monitoring well closure and final revegetation) including 3’ of cover and 1’ of topsoil, had been met,” Stiner said.
“In addition to those issues, the identified mine shaft on site had been sealed, filled and/or otherwise closed as part of the site reclamation,” Stiner added.
Lois Grimm, a member of Save Our Schools, said she is concerned the site is “environmentally inappropriate” and also worries previous mining activity will result in sinkholes on the land.
“I think the school district needs to do some soul searching to see if it really wants to take a gamble on this land in light of the findings by the DEP,” she said.
The district is familiar with building on land that requires geotechnical measures in response to mining activity, Wendolowski said, adding it’s an issue for developers just about “anywhere you go in Northeast Pennsylvania.”
One measure that began on the site this month is dynamic compaction, a ground improvement technique that densifies soils and fill materials by using a drop weight. It’s another example of the district “going above and beyond” what’s required, Costello said.
The current plan calls for one athletic field at the Pagnotti site, but it can eventually have up to nine fields and tennis courts there, Costello said.
In 2017, the school board abandoned its initial plan to merge just Coughlin and Meyers by building a new high school on the Coughlin site in downtown Wilkes-Barre after the city zoning board rejected that plan. The board this year abandoned a plan to build an addition to Kistler Elementary School for 7th and 8th grades because of the decision to merge all three high schools and use the GAR building as a middle school.
The district spent more than $1 million on design and pre-construction work on the Kistler-addition plan and nearly $4.9 million on the Coughlin-site plans, including expenditures on asbestos abatement, pre-demolition work and design work.
Contact the writer:
IF YOU GO
What: Wilkes-Barre Area School Board meeting
When: Thursday, 6 p.m.
Where: Cafeteria of Solomon/Plains school complex, 43 Abbot St., Plains Twp.