What’s in the Air?

Sept. 4-10, 2003
What’s in the Air?
By Blessed Sacrament staff/ SUN contributing writers
Southern Tier schools in Endicott await results of contamination tests

Effects from chemical spills in Endicott, dating as far back as 1979, have come back to haunt a diocesan school. The possibility exists that solvent vapor associated with IMB Corp. could be lingering in the air at Our Lady of Sorrows/Seton Campus, serves pre-k through eighth grade. While there is no evidence to suggest the school environment is dangerous, parents, students and administrators want to know for certain the building is safe. “The school is located outside the area in which the soil vapor contaminants have been detected,” said Dr. Paul King, assistant superintendent of Catholic schools of Broome County. “But testing is important. We want to make sure the air is safe for all of us to breathe.”

Chemical disposal from past decades became a major concern earlier this year after traces of chemicals seeping from IBM’s former location on North Street in Endicott were found in hundreds of homes and businesses south of the plant. When King found that the company agreed to pay for tests done in July at nearby Union Endicott High School, a building facing a similar situation, he hoped IBM Corp. would pay for testing at Our Lady of Sorrows/Seton Campus. But the company announced earlier this month it will not test for chemicals at the school. “Neither school (Our Lady of Sorrows/Seton Campus and Union Endicott) is in the area of concern, both however are close to the spill area,” said King. “If Our Lady of Sorrows/Seton Campus was a greater distance away, maybe a case could be made that we shouldn’t be tested. But we are actually closer.”

IBM’s decision means that the Catholic school system will do the testing itself at the school which has an enrollment of 170 students. “Although we have thoughtfully and carefully considered your request, it is simply not IBM’s role or responsibility to perform indoor air testing at places outside of the Groundwater Vapor Project study area,” wrote Mitchell E. Meyers, IBM’s project manager, in a letter dated Aug. 13 to King. The letter pointed out that IBM agreed to perform sampling at Union-Endicott High School as one exception and is not in a position to continue to do testing at more locations outside the study area. The Groundwater Vapor Project, performed by IBM Corp. under the supervision of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, is investigating the areas most likely affected by the chemical spills.

The tests at Our Lady of Sorrows/Seton Campus, estimated to cost $5,000, will be paid for by the Catholic school system out of its maintenance budget. An environmental scientist, hired with the help of the Diocese of Syracuse, took air samples from four areas in the building, including the basement and the exterior of the building, on Aug. 18 and 19. No building is going to be without a trace of chemicals, emphasized King. “In every building you will find some traces of elements that are used in everyday products such as cleaners. The test looks for chemicals that you do not find present in buildings,” he added.

The main chemical scientists are searching for is trichloroethylene, also known as TCE, a colorless liquid used mainly as a solvent for cleaning metal parts. Trichloroethylene quickly evaporates from surface water and may linger inside buildings for years. “This is the chemical that we are most concerned with,” said King. The samples have been sent to a laboratory for analysis. Results should be complete in three to four weeks, at which time parents and staff will be informed in writing of what the tests showed, King said.

The results will come as a relief after months of efforts on behalf of King to get IBM Corp. to test the building. King first spoke with Meyers about testing the school on July 22. The conversation occurred a day after Myers attended a public meeting in Endicott at which IBM officials told the community they wanted to help, said King. Myers told him to send a letter to his office; King obliged. Three weeks later, he received the letter from Meyers declining to perform indoor air testing.

The impression that IBM gave the public at the meeting and their decision not to test the school are a mixed message from the company, observed King. “IBM is saying to people, ‘we want to help people understand the problem and how to take care of it,’ but they are now saying that it is not their responsibility to perform the proper tests,” King said. Ann Liguori, who has a daughter entering fifth grade at Our Lady of Sorrows/Seton Campus, has been waiting since July to find out if the school is contaminated. “I am satisfied that we are getting tested,” said Liguori. “It is disappointing that IBM isn’t doing them but, like most parents, I am absolutely relieved.”

For now, she has no plans to remove her daughter from the school. Still, Liguori said she will feel relieved when the results come back. “Including the pre-k and kindergarten, there is the potential that a child could attend this school for nine years,” said Liguori. “We need to know that it is safe.”

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