Many Questions Remain after Testing Results Discussed


I attended the special school board meeting on Thursday, July 30th where the school board was to reveal the test results of the air quality testing done at Cortland Grade School.

Superintendent Dr. James Briscoe had previously announced at various public gatherings that he was going to have a toxicologist review the results of the air quality testing and explain it to parents and the school board. His stated reasoning was that he was not an expert and feared that parents and community members were overreacting to the initial air quality testing results.

Superintendent Briscoe introduced Dr. Hogan an Industrial Hygienist, to explain the results of the tests for Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S). Dr. Hogan proceeded to explain the results of the air quality testing at Cortland Grade School as he passed around a number of handouts. According to Dr. Hogan, there was only a small amount of H2S detected but it was not in school.

Dr. Hogan recommended a continuous monitor at the school due to expressed concerns.

The room was packed with concerned parents, district staff and concerned community members. Many questions and concerns were expressed by parents and community members. Among them was where the actual test results were? Dr. Briscoe stated he would have these posted on the district web site for parents the following day.

Dr. Hogan stated that two types of testing were done, one with a charcoal tube test and the other with a highly sensitive instrument called a Jerome meter. According to Dr. Hogan, the tests with the charcoal tube were in the high range, while the Jerome meter tested what he called “acceptable minimal risk” range.

So why are parents concerned? As a former nurse, one of the most important things I learned was children are not simply little adults. Their anatomy, physiology and compensatory mechanisms are quite different, and they change as the child grows.

Therefore, the levels of toxicity that an average adult would respond to would happen sooner in a child due their physical size and developing physiology in relation to an adult. Compound that with a child with special needs such as Autism, Cystic Fibrosis, Asthma and many other significant special needs that children can have, and they are even more susceptible.

Children are more vulnerable than adults to H2S, first because they breathe more rapidly, taking in significantly more pollution per pound of body weight than do adults. A resting infant, for example, inhales twice as much air, relative to its size, as does a resting adult. Second, national data show that children spend an average of about 50% more time outdoors than adults. Third, children are three times more active while outdoors than adults, engaged in sports and other vigorous activities; this increased activity raises breathing rates and significantly increases inhalation and in some cases swallowing of pollutants. Fourth, children are particularly vulnerable to toxic substances because their bodies are immature and rapidly growing. Fifth, children are in their prime learning years and H2S exposure causes brain damage. The impairment of mental faculties in a child amounts to a lifetime of harm.[1]

“Public health scientists now recognize that hydrogen sulfide is a potent neurotoxin, and that chronic exposure to even low ambient levels causes irreversible damage to the brain and central nervous system. Children are among the most susceptible to this poison gas.

It is unacceptable for communities to have to continue suffering the ill effects of H2S when the technology to control H2S emissions is available and affordable.” — Neil Carman, Ph.D.

Many questions remain in my mind that I feel need to be answered:

  • Why weren’t the test results shared prior to the school board meeting on 7/30?
  • Who recommended Dr. Hogan?
  • Why was Waste Management allowed to perform testing alongside Carnow, Conibear & Assoc.?
  • It was stated that the test results with the charcoal tube vs. Jerome Meter were vastly different. Since they were so out range from one another, why not perform additional testing?
  • If Waste Management performed testing, what were their results?
  • Who will monitor the continuous readings? What happens if the readings are high or alarm?
  • Why weren’t parents notified via the parental notification system? (They use it for PTO meetings, why not for something as important as this?)
  • Why is it that on the analysis from Dr. Hogan that he handed out at the school board meeting and the Carnow, Conibear & Assoc. test results that were posted on the school district web site both state Draft?
  • To me, draft copies indicate a working copy and there is a final version forthcoming. If these are draft copies, where are the final versions? Why haven’t we seen those?
  • What about the parents who still aren’t assured that the school is safe for their child to attend?
  • What will the district do when those parents decide they don’t want their child to attend Cortland?

In Dr. Briscoe’s letter to the IL Dept. of Environmental Health, he cc’s an Anthony Ficarelli, who is he? I can’t find any reference to his connection to the IL Dept. of Environmental Health, the Regional Superintendent of Schools, ATSDR, or Hogan & Associates. I did note that the Waste Management Operations Mgr, Dale Hoekstra, the attorney for the expansion Mr. Moran, and other Waste Management officials were present at this meeting.

As a parent, I am not comfortable sending my child to Cortland Grade School. Luckily my child currently attends Malta Grade School. I wonder though, that if this issue isn’t resolved by next fall, how this could affect matters as the district plans to close Malta and Tyler schools.

With so many questions left unanswered, perhaps the school should remain closed until these questions are answered and a thorough action plan and policy can be put into place to assure parents of the safety of their children. Dr. Briscoe stated the safety of the children is his most important concern. Perhaps we should prove that and keep the school closed.

[1] Carman, N. Hydrogen Sulfide and its Health Effects – from oil to hog farms

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Lisa Wilcox is an army veteran and owner/operator of Web Girl Consulting.

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  1. Mac, I'm telling you, my idea that the school board should have purchased property over by Peace Road and Lincoln Hwy is looking a bit better now isn't it. Really though the best idea would have been to either knock down the old grade school and rebuild there making it a true neighborhood school or talking with Eagle Homes or Kevin Dahl about securing land on the north side of Cortland for a grade school. They could have redone the school lines and all the kids could have gone to District 428 instead of 427 in that area. Oh well!

  2. What movie was this in? Where do we go? What do we do? What do we do? . . . . . . . . What movie was this from? I keep thinking Wizard of Oz and the Cowardly Lion.

    If they spend all of that money on a monitor, they must have at least thought of an evacuation plan, wouldn't they have? Is Dr. Briscoe begging please, please to Waste Managment and the town of Cortland to help pitch in for the monitor. One more thought, is there going to be a special siren outside the school so that all of Cortland knows that H2S levels are over the minimum level that is accepted? When does school start again.

  3. If I were Briscoe, what would be getting to me is that we are this far down the road and not AT ALL prepared to handle any sort of emergency. The lack of an H2S evacuation contingency plan is shining light on the notion that there are apparently no other sufficient communication and contingency plans in place. Testimony from Cortland parents as to being in the dark has proven this. And is this problem just at Cortland, or district-wide? No wonder attorneys are involved!

  4. OK, now please someone explain this to me. The H2S alarm goes off in the Cortland grade school, evacuation of the students and staff begins. Evacuate to where? If it gets to the point inside that the alarm goes off, I'm thinking that the outside conditions really are not going to be much better. Am I thinking to much here? Does the alarm going off mean the the schools bus service is going to be activated and these students hauled off to a safe zone? Like DeKalb? Where? Tests results right now for the town of Cortland itself doesn't look real promising either. Are you getting the feeling that this might actually be getting to Dr. Briscoe just a wee bit?

  5. I think I know now what gentleman was Ficarelli at the meeting. That man struck me as an attorney, I wasn't sure for whom. I'm really saddened to read all of this and that I missed the meeting last night. It's interesting the Dr. Hogan claimed that the Jerome meter was more accurate than the Charcoal. Now from what I understand from Kerry, the omission of the field media blanks, leaves more reasons to be concerned. WOW, I almost think an attorney for the parents should be getting involved right now. If I was a Cortland parent, I would be either demanding my child gets relocated to a different school or homeschooling my child.

  6. I got back an hour ago from the latest school board meeting. At the very end, Superintendent Briscoe let the board and audience know that he is working on getting an H2S meter into Cortland School, and that one of the companies they've been talking with says it can be done by August 16th. (I sent an email to district leadership outlining a plan to rent a meter back on June 16th.) The late date for meter installation brought an immediate series of questions from board members Tia Robinson and Fred Davis, reminding all that at the special board meeting the other night parents were told on the basis of comments by Dr Hogan, that a rented meter could be in place in a few days, not several weeks. Robinson and Davis pointed out that the perception of parents needs to be dealt with and the board should hold to what was said at the special meeting. Apparently, according to Briscoe, there is some delay regarding the meter having to do with the district's legal counsel and Dr. Hogan. Also, board member Holly Wallace insisted that a contingency plan be in place before school starts as to what to do with students and how to contact parents in the event the H2S alarm should indicate the need to leave the building. I spoke with Dr. Briscoe after the meeting, and suggested that such a plan, both the evacuation and communication aspects, are in many ways similar to what needs to be in place in the event of a natural disaster at the school, or a terrorist or similar threat. It would appear by lack of any mention that no such contingency plans exist at this time. Once again we see how woefully unprepared this school district is for events outside the routine.

  7. I glanced at Mr. Ficarelli during the meeting, and noticed the copious amount of pages on his legal pad that were already folded under, (an old acid test for how serious a matter is) and noticed that the WM suit wasn't taking notes, Hoekstra was, and the other suit (who wasn't wearing a suit) was as well. There are giant liability issues in play, and my mind keeps seeing the BP, Transocean and Halliburton suits pointing at eachother saying "it wasn't me. it was them" in a spiral of denial and deferral. I keep thinking in the back of my mind, that Ficarelli was half expecting a lawyer from the parents and residents.

  8. The charcoal tube data needs to be repeated with a correct methodology. They also need to run parallel charcoal tube tests with the outside air dampers for the building HVAC system closed, and the building sealed as best as possible to rule out internal generation as a significant source. One set of media (charcoal tubes) indoors, another set outside, both with field blanks. I tend to agree with Dr. Hogan's assessment that the H2S is coming from outside, but there are ways to prove it with better methodology. A portable Jerome meter (and/or other portable meters) could also be used to determine the source(s) of external H2S. There is much more and better testing that could and should be performed, but for some reason the district (or their experts) is not doing it. I am not sure if this is strictly a cost issue, but I am reasonably sure there is no person on staff in the district that understands the design of experiments (testing in this case) well enough to define and contract for determinative tests. I have offered my services (gratis) in this area, but so far, no takers. The district really could use a scientifically minded "consultant" on staff or in some way available when they deal with outside "experts". Currently, they have no way to write contracts or be able to vet contract proposals so as to know what is in the best interest of the district. This, unfortunately, is much like what happened with the architects and the new high school. It is, for example, why we have a sewage lift station that we did not need. No one on staff was able to review the drawings and keep watch over the construction as it proceeded. So the mismatch in drain elevations was missed. As long as the district is operated this way, it will bleed money and get less than it deserves or needs. In the case of Hydrogen Sulfide and Cortland school, there could be a life safety issue, and large legal exposure to the district. I'm sure 428's attorney, Mr. Ficarelli, realizes this. I don't know what he is recommending.

  9. The Charcoal Tube readings are "Draft" in my opinion because Carnow Conibear (CCA) did not include field media blanks when they submitted the rest of the samples to the analysis lab. CCA's report on page 8 (p.11 on 428's pdf file) attributes this to a cost savings measure. Without these blanks (media blanks are non-exposed charcoal tubes kept with the rest of the charcoal tubes at the test site) there is no way to calibrate the actual measurement. No way to understand and guarantee the measured H2S came from the test site (field) rather than the media blanks themselves or the solvents used to extract the samples of interest (H2S in this case). There are lots of ways to contaminate media (the charcoal tubes) and without media field blanks (non-exposed media), we can't be certain where the Hydrogen Sulfide measured in the Charcoal Tubes came from. Someone made a serious "mistake" in not including field media blanks.

  10. Dr. Briscoe told me personally during a FPC meeting that he was happy to see that Waste Management acted on his letter requesting that the excess gas pipe and flame be moved to the other side of the landfill.

    Also, that flame really never burned hot enough to do the intended job properly. That is one reason for the smell being as bad as it was most of the time when you passed the "torch" on I88. I believe that I might be right if I say the flame should have been all blue with no yellow noticeable in order to properly be burning off the escaping gas. The flame was pretty much yellow whenever I passed it.

    I agree Mac, the fact that Tony is listening in and being kept abreast shows that they realize that there are legal implications here. I really wish Mac that the FPC would have taken our concern about this location more seriously then they did. I guess having the architect draw in non-venting (do not open) windows into the specs really didn't help did it.

    I still am hoping that some common sense and decency on the part of School District 428 will show itself with this problem and the genuine concerns that are being shown. H2S gas at any level is a serious matter especially when it involves our children. I hope the school district puts aside the fact that they are trying to save their butts here and start putting the children up front and first here.

  11. Dr. Serweciz a concerned citizen and a chemist with many years of experience, who brought the issue of H2S to everyone's attention at the public hearing in march, told me that the carbon testing is the "Gold Seal" when it comes to testing for H2S. He said that it is more reliable than the Jerome test. It has to do with the H2S and the air molecules movment when you use the Jerome meter.

  12. Ficarelli's presence might be an indicator of the district's concern for legal liability. It appeared to me to be a priority with Dr. Hogan's approach. I believe the torch was moved in March-April of 2009, based on email correspondence we've received due to a FOIA request submitted by Dan Kenney. This exchange between Riley Oncken and a Cortland resident will give some background. From that exchange I am completely baffled why the County didn't notify the School District of the pending Host Agreement and possible major expansion of the landfill.

  13. Mr. Krpan, thank you for explaining who Mr. Ficarelli is. I spoke to many parents active in the district and they didn't know who he was. Barabara, it is my understanding and perhaps Mac can correct me if I'm wrong, that the moving of the flame was supposed to be done anyway per WM's agreement with the County. Another question that just came to my mind that was asked at the school board meeting is with the corn crops so high, is it possible that the photosynthesizing action that normally occurs with plants is perhaps masking much of the H2S currently? What will happen to the levels when the crops are harvested?

  14. I have been wondering: "Why did Waste Management move the burning torch?" If they claim they have/are managing H2S correctly and it is not blowing across the school, what was the business purpose for the move? Also I'd like to know why there has been no enforcement to fix the leaks? If the pollution board does not approve the citing application, will Waste Management be required to fix the leaks? Just several of many questions.

  15. Way too many questions still floating out there. I don't think that District 428 could have thrown a dart any better and hit a bullseye than they did with placement of the Cortland grade school. It seems as though that school is sitting pretty much dead center of several toxic areas. I never trusted their fandangled sewage treatment area in the first place. Just have to question allowing fecal discharge to aerate in the open by just spreading it on open ground. What were they thinking when they allowed for this system? Waste Management is still in my mind a very major contributor to this problem. As I saw in some blog, I too am wondering how Waste Management modified their work schedule during the testing? Just moving the 24 hour burning torch that burns off methane was a big help but the smell is still there and where there is smell, there is poisonous H2S. It really is that simple school board, you can smell it you are breathing in a poison. Let's stop the dancing around the issue and solve the problem.

  16. Mr. Anthony Ficarelli is the legal counsel for District 428. He has been their counsel now for quite some time and is very well versed when it comes to legal business dealing with school districts.