Auditorium project unearths contaminated soil at Greenwich High

Source: http://www.greenwichtime.com, July 26, 2011
By: Lisa Chamoff

Construction of a new auditorium at Greenwich High School has hit another roadblock, with contaminated soil found during excavation work in the parking lot behind the school just a couple of weeks after the district broke ground on the $29 million project.

Board of Education Vice Chairman Leslie Moriarty, a member of the building committee for the music instruction space and auditorium project, known as MISA, said during work to expand the western parking lot and dig a trench for an irrigation line, construction workers found soil that was a darker color than the surrounding dirt.

Initial testing revealed traces of lead, arsenic and barium, as well as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and petroleum hydrocarbon. Some of the levels were slightly above the most stringent requirements for groundwater quality, Moriarty said.

Moriarty said all work in that area of the site was stopped, the excavated soil was covered and state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and local officials were notified. Additional testing was conducted, with results expected in the next few days.

The impact the discovery will have on the project’s budget and schedule is not yet known, Moriarty said.

“There is an issue that is being aggressively analyzed and tested to understand what needs to be done,” Moriarty said. “We don’t know if we have a problem, and if we do have a problem what the extent of the problem is. Do we need to remediate? There are still a lot of questions to be answered.”

About $3 million in contingency costs are built into the project’s $29 million budget, but any costs for environmental issues would likely not come from the contingency fund, Moriarty said.

“There is a contingency that was identified at the time the budget was established for the summer site work, but that contingency was intended to address construction issues, not environmental issues,” Moriarty said. “We do need to better understand what the potential cost for this will be.”

Work on the west lot was scheduled to be completed by mid-August. Moriarty said the building committee needs to start developing a contingency plan for the delay, perhaps continuing the work in a smaller footprint during the school year.

On Friday, Superintendent of Schools Sidney Freund sent a letter to staff members and parents of students attending summer school at the high school to inform them of the discovery of “unexpected soil conditions.”

“Initial soil tests have been completed and the results have not revealed any evidence of health hazards,” Freund wrote. “We are conducting an additional level of testing and expect the results early next week.”

“While we have not yet received any evidence of a health hazard, we take any potentially adverse environmental conditions seriously,” Freund continued. “In an effort to be proactive, we will conduct environmental testing throughout the time frame of the Greenwich High School MISA project. We will also continue to communicate information on the project periodically and/or as necessary.”

The letter did not detail which specific contaminants were discovered at the site.

School Board Chairman Steven Anderson said officials decided it made sense to first inform those for whom the soil contamination has the most immediate impact.

“You first are going to address the people who are using the school right now,” Anderson said.

State DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain could not confirm that Greenwich officials contacted the agency about the soil, but said the state agency has expertise on soil contamination issues, and would work with the district if clean up efforts are needed.

“There are clear guidelines and policies that would speak to how to proceed given different findings,” Schain said. “There is always some metals in soils. They occur naturally, so you really need to see what is there. The key is to take it step by step.”

The MISA project has been criticized by some residents and town officials for its high cost, and there has been concern about complications that could arise because the work is taking place on swamp land.

First Selectman Peter Tesei said he learned about the soil issues after he was forwarded Freund’s letter on Friday.

“In terms of their moving forward, I think they’re doing the necessary things they must do to comply with all the various environmental regulations,” Tesei said. “That’s really part of any project — you’re going to encounter unforeseen things … I don’t see it as a major impediment.”

The soil discovery is the latest issue with the long-awaited project. Just before work began July 1, the town’s Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission ruled that the district must install a special drainage system on the south end of campus to spare 18 more mature trees than the project’s building committee had planned, which increased the cost of the project by about $50,000. That came after Tree Warden Bruce Spaman ruled that the town would not approve the project unless the district replaced the 121 trees it had planned to remove with 180 new ones.

The MISA work comes after a series of cost overruns and delays plagued the renovation of Hamilton Avenue School. Closed in 2005 because of long-standing mold and structural problems, the school was supposed to have been rebuilt within 18 months. Instead, the project took more than three years to complete, causing overall costs to swell by $2.2 million, leaving the overall price tag at more than $31.1 million.

Moriarty said the issues that have come up with MISA are different.

“This project is structured differently and managed differently, so those issues won’t be repeated in this project,” Moriarty said.

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