District faces pressure to act on Frank P. Long
Frank P. Long Intermediate School fear that landfill irritants are the cause of a string of cancer cases.

File photo

District faces pressure to act on Frank P. Long

Story By: TARA SMITH
7/13/2017


Ever since South Country Central School District officials heard powerful testimony about health issues surrounding Frank P. Long, pressure has been mounting on the board to take action. At their reorganizational meeting last Wednesday, the board discussed both short- and long-term solutions.

Last month, the Advance reported that 32 teachers at Frank P. Long have been diagnosed with cancer and 11 have died over the past 20 years. Current students and teachers report other respiratory problems and symptoms including a mysterious rash and believe the landfill is in part to blame.

The nearly 300-foot landfill has been the source of odors bad enough to cancel outdoor recess, but their concerns go further than just a bad smell. In 2011, under the previous Town of Brookhaven administration, the DEC pulled the town permit for accepting biosolids (aka sewage sludge) when it was discovered the odor became so strong it was making people sick. But their symptoms persist.

Last week, the Advance obtained copies of reports that detail environmental tests done at Frank P. Long dating back to 2014.

In June 2016, a test conducted by Enviroscience Consultants of Ronkonkoma found traces of benzene, a known carcinogen. The report states that 0.34 µg/m3 of benzene was found, but according to the World Health Organization, no specific guideline value has been developed for benzene in the air, therefore, no safe level of exposure can be recommended. The organization’s fact page states that acute exposure can cause headaches, dizziness and drowsiness, along with eye and skin irritations.

More recent reports from May and June of this year show traces of mold and a higher than allowed amount of 1,2-dichloropropane, also known as propylene dichloride. The report states that the 0.74 µg/m3 of the compound detected is above guidelines. 

EPA studies show that acute inhalation can affect the lungs, gastrointestinal system, blood, liver, kidneys and central nervous system. Though there is limited information regarding the long-term effects, the chemical is believed to be a carcinogen. And while medical tests can detect propylene dichloride in urine and blood, it leaves the body quickly and makes testing difficult.  

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said the results were troubling. “Collectively, all of these [volatile organic compounds] are of concern. We need to know where they are coming from,” she said. “And they did not test for particulate matter. We’ve been asking for this testing for years.”

The DEC has installed a particulate matter monitor at the school, but Esposito said no results are in yet.  

Enviroscience president Glenn Neuschwender spoke at last week’s meeting to propose a new round of tests.  The testing, Neuschwender explained, would be the first to test for particulate matter in the air and would take more time due to a larger sample and more parameters. The consultants would first have to evaluate the concentration of particulate to EPA ambient air-quality standards. “If those results exceed those EPA standards, then the sampling can be further assessed,” he said. It would take about a month to complete, Neuschwender said. 

Superintendent Dr. Joseph Giani said that the additional particle would cost the district $71,000, though some parents say they’ve already seen enough from prior test results. 

When asked whether it is possible to attribute the harmful chemicals found directly to the landfill, Neuschwender turned to the DEC. At a recent meeting with the DEC, he learned that they have eliminated all compounds of concern at the landfill except for hydrogen sulfide, another respiratory trigger.

“The DEC required the town to do things on a faster track to proceed with closing the landfill, which is the track they are ultimately on,” he said, noting the expedited capping process as well as installation of additional gas extraction wells on-site and monitoring of leachate.

Meanwhile, the district remains focused on alternatives to holding class at Frank P. Long, but Giani noted the time frame on all solutions would be longer than this summer. 

He also explained that the district was looking into renting vacant buildings to hold classes in, including the shuttered Dowling College campus in Shirley and several Sachem schools. Of those, two were available: Tecumseh Elementary and Gatelot Elementary, both in the Sachem district. In 2015, Sachem school district officials announced those schools would be shut, citing a multimillion dollar budget gap and declining enrollment. The annual lease cost, Giani said, would be $838,000 for Tecumseh and “about a million” for Gatelot, on top of $500,000 in transportation fees and other associated moving costs.  

Portable classrooms also come with a hefty price tag, at about $300,000 per unit. The district would need between eight and 12 units to accommodate Frank P. Long students, Giani said. Another option Giani gave is increasing K-8 class sizes to over 30 students. “That would generate enough classrooms to move fourth grade back to primary schools and fifth-graders into the middle school,” he said, adding that he doesn’t recommend this plan. 

“We also looked into our own land and the possibility of building for a long-range plan,” Giani said, noting that the district owns several acres. Building a new school, he said, would take a minimum of five years and run taxpayers nearly $25 million.

During public comment, several parents and teachers demanded the district take action beyond additional testing. Parent Caroline Brabazon Wilkinson said she had mixed feelings about the update. “But I think the board is doing the best they can with what they have. It looks like they are learning to do what is best for the children and putting common sense first,” she said. 

The board did not make a decision Wednesday night, and will meet again on July 26. “That concerns me,” Wilkinson said. “I don’t understand how this could not be done by September as an emergency precaution.”

Her son, a fifth-grader, experiences frequent spells of illness. “We’ve seen 18 specialists and still don’t know what’s going on,” she explained. “I don’t know what the cause is, but I know he was exposed to [volatile organic compounds] when he was in Frank P. Long.” But since no doctor can pinpoint the cause, Wilkinson is wary of placing blame on the school or landfill. “[My son] was a very active, healthy child. We couldn’t keep him inside. He was always the one stuck on the roof or climbing trees,” she said. “And now he has to spend his summer inside on the couch.” Still, she is hopeful that his time away from the school will aid his recovery.

Ex-landfill employee Tom Puccio also took to the microphone, offering a unique perspective. “I worked there for 10 years, and that place is an environmental disaster,” he said, to cheers and applause. He expressed concerns over family members going to the school. “You can’t put a price on the health of children, the employees and teachers,” he said. “It’s got to be taken care of,” he added, urging the board to take action.  

“I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but ignoring the problem isn’t solving it,” Esposito added. “It’s the DEC’s responsibility to regulate the landfill and make sure we’re safe.”

The board will meet again on July 26.