School central office can proceed despite contamination, report says
SALISBURY — An initial assessment of the proposed school central office site says development can proceed despite groundwater contamination.
But the state will have the final say about when the project can move forward.
On Wednesday, local and state officials were beginning to review the 79-page document completed by Alan Griffith, a licensed geologist working on behalf of the city.
Griffith’s firm in Winston-Salem is performing the required environmental testing and consultation.
Reaction to his assessment from city and school officials was positive, but a spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources said it’s too soon to say if the cleanup is over.
Although lab results from groundwater monitoring wells on the property showed contamination, the site can still be used for a central office, Griffith wrote to the state.
He recommends periodic groundwater pumping to reduce contaminants to below the state’s gross contaminant levels.
“The pumping will not interfere with the development of the site as a central school office,” Griffith wrote to Dan Graham, the state’s project manager for the cleanup. “Future development of the site can proceed now.”
Graham, a hydrogeologist for the state’s Underground Storage Tank Section, will review Griffith’s limited site assessment.
Typically, after the state receives an initial assessment, the process continues with a comprehensive site assessment, corrective action plan and corrective action, according to Cathy Akroyd, spokeswoman for the Division of Waste Management.
In his review, Graham will check Griffith’s report for accuracy and completion, Akroyd said.
If Graham does not agree with the methods and conclusions in the report, he could require further action before the work is considered final, Akroyd said.
According to Griffith’s report, samples from the two groundwater monitoring wells on the property were submitted for laboratory analyses. Results showed groundwater concentrations of two contaminants — benzene and methyl tertiary-butylether, or MTBE — above state levels.
The objective of the periodic pumping that Griffith recommends would be to clean up the contamination to the appropriate level, based on any determined risk of the site, Akroyd said.
The cost of the cleanup, originally estimated at $35,000, could top $500,000. The state is footing the bill, other than the city’s $20,000 deductible.
Rowan County commissioners, who had agreed to borrow $6.2 million on behalf of the school system for the facility, balked at the downtown location, citing the environmental contamination. City Council in February agreed to consider borrowing $8 million on behalf of the schools.
Gene Miller, assistant superintendent for operations at the Rowan-Salisbury School System, said he was not surprised to learn the assessment recommended moving forward with development of the site.
“We knew that was going to happen,” Miller said. “We tried to tell everybody it was a routine matter to get it cleaned up. The county has faced that many times in projects they’ve had, and I’ve faced it in projects I’ve had with the school system.”
City Manager Doug Paris called Wednesday’s report “great news” and said he will meet with city staff by early next week to consider strategy and next steps.
Council has not yet voted to move forward with the project, which would require the blessing of the state’s Local Government Commission.
The crater where thousands of tons of soil were removed at the site has been filled and seeded.
Paris said he has not yet discussed possible financing scenarios with school officials or the Local Government Commission and has been waiting for the resolution of the environmental issues.
“You have to walk before you can run,” he said.
Ultimately, the city and school system would take an interlocal agreement to the LGC and talk to them about the financing process, Paris said.
“This has been a creative project from the beginning to the end,” he said. “Salisbury does creative things, and things that our citizens can be proud of.”
The city bought the former service station in the 300 block of South Main Street in 2007 after the state had given the site a clean bill of health. The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education chose the site as the location for the future school central office.
When work began on the property, the city discovered seven orphan underground storage tanks and massive soil contamination.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.