Toxic fear for Norrell Elementary

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Protestors voiced harsh words at the Richmond Public School Board Tuesday night over sending three and four-year-old children to a school that was once closed for environmental hazards. Some fear that hazardous gases still threaten Norrell Elementary, built near a landfill. Some parents and residents say it's unsafe to reopen the facility as a temporary preschool next week.

However, the board hasn't changed its decision. School officials maintain testing by an independent environmental consulting firm proves that the building is clear of toxic gases. Preschool is still set to start at Norrell Elementary on September 10th, while MLK Middle School is under construction. The board is sticking to its vote, despite some alarming new claims by one school board member and the public.

"If the city of Richmond can spend millions and billions of dollars refurbishing the Landmark Theater…then certainly you can get enough money, even if they have to cut your salary, to take care of our children," said Teddy Parham at the podium during the public comment portion of the school board meeting.

In an earlier work session for the school officials, school board member Kim Gray challenged that Norrell is still at risk for migrating methane gas, underground. However, school officials and representatives from France Environmental Incorporated, say the testing done since July proves no toxins exist on the site.

"What they've (the school district) done here is spot checking... And that's not sufficient. It can tell you if it's (methane gas) there today, but it can't guarantee that it's not going to be there tomorrow," said Gray.

Gray also says she's uncovered city documents describing failing methane gas detection and ventilation systems, that may still be defunct in the building. She says the systems should be running if kids return. Further Gray says the detection and ventilation systems may have working to be legally, as per past regulatory orders.

The school district's chief operating officer, Andy Hawkins, says the new testing has proven the facility is safe. He says even if broken detection systems exist, the district has hired a firm to do recent testing anyway.

"We're going to continue monitoring it in the future to ensure the safety of our children," said Hawkins.

However, Mo Karnage, representing the group Parents for Life, which fought for Norrell's closure in 2006, says there are other serious issues that the board isn't even aware of.

"Norrell Elementary school, if opened next week for three and four-year-old students, will be in violation of Head Start regulations, FEMA regulations and EPA regulations that are about on issues that were not addressed by you and your testing."

After the Karnage finished, the board asked to be forwarded the information she cited.

The board also agreed to look into the alleged defunct methane gas detection and ventilation systems.

However, for now, 260 preschoolers are set to go to Norrell Elementary in less than a week.

School officials say there's no other place to send them, and that filtering the students into schools with less capacity won't work because of transportation issues.

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