Indicted as money pits and killing fields, have simmered, largely untouched, only steps from Briarcliff Manor schools for nearly a decade and a half. Next week, the school district is expected, at long last, to formally tell the state what it plans to do about it.
Even before they officially submit that remediation plan, the district’s environmental and legal consultants were expected to discuss it this week with representatives of the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
The district’s environmental consultant, Michael Musso, a senior project engineer with HDR Inc. in Pearl River, said that ongoing tests at a softball field near the , one of two target sites, uncovered no harmful contaminants.
“We didn’t find any PAHs [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons], no volatile compounds and...no pesticides," he told the school board Monday.
Musso said he will meet with state DEC officials informally this week in advance of a formal submission next week.
These discussions come 10 years after DEC uncovered pollutants at the other contaminated site, an all-purpose “practice field” near the high school, and only weeks after school officials acknowledged that they face legal action over the cancer deaths of two students.
Nicholas Birch, a middle school student, was 12 when he died last year, and was 18 and a 2009 graduate when he died in 2010. Their parents have put the district on notice that they plan to sue, asserting a link between the contaminated fields and their children’s illnesses.
School officials, for their part, immediately set aside additional money for legal defense, nearly doubling next year’s allocation, from $300,000 to $560,000. It also established Sive, Paget & Riesel, the district’s environmental counsel, as its legal defense team as well.
The latter move came under fire from Michael Valenti, a frequent board critic, who has been especially vocal on the contaminated-fields issue. Valenti, who fired off a weekend broadside via email, addressed the board directly at Monday’s work session in the middle school auditorium.
He declared the Sive, Paget appointment fraught with conflict-of-interest potential.
“When [state agencies like DEC] or anyone else begins to request specific information about the deaths and illnesses and sickness and cancers that have emanated from this issue, Sive Paget is going to be hard-pressed to answer their inquiries,” he said. “They’ll have to cite attorney/client privilege as they also are our counsel on the litigation issues," he said. "That’s a clear conflict of interest.”
After he emailed “the community,” Valenti said, he “got an outpouring of emails back from people,” including lawyers who “all agreed with my non-attorney viewpoint on this issue.”
But at least one lawyer—Michael Bogin of Sive, Paget, who was on hand to discuss remediation—took issue with Valenti's claims.
“I can unequivocally say that there is no conflict of interest,” Bogin insisted.
Attorney-client privilege would not attach to any information received from the people who sued the district, he said.
“It would be an admission,” Bogin said. “It would be coming through in court papers papers.
“Any attorney-client communication between Sive, Paget and the board would not be disclosed,” he said, “but that would be true whether we were representing the board or any other attorney was representing the board.” No attorney is entitled “to waive the board’s privilege,” Bogin said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s us; it doesn’t matter who it is.”
Earlier, Valenti had asked when the chosen remediation plan will be submitted to DEC and urged the board to tell members of the public that they can comment on it.
Bogin, in his remarks, covered that ground, saying, “In my experience with DEC—over 20 years of environmental law practice—DEC takes public comments from any person at any time on an issue of importance. And this is an issue of importance.”
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No formal plan has yet been submitted to DEC, he said, but after it has been filed the public will have 30 days to comment.
“That’s not required, by the way, under the program under which this remediation is proceeding,” Bogin said. “But the board has asked that we do that and we plan to do that.”
While the board’s remediation choice will not be formally submitted until next week, it will likely be the , the only solution the board has seriously considered in recent weeks. It calls for a rubbery open grid to act as a marker, separating the potentially contaminated soil from a protective barrier layer of clean earth. Tested for sanitary compliance, it would measure 20 inches and provide separation between the yuck below and a 4-inch layer of topsoil, in which the grass would grow.
Some critics like Valenti want to see an impervious barrier layer to cap the contaminants, firmly closing them off from the earth/topsoil layer. Valenti renewed that call Monday night. But in response to a question from Board President Guy Rotondo, Musso, the HDR consultant, called that kind of barrier unnecessary.
Such caps are used, he said, at solid waste landfills, where refuse is deposited, to keep contaminants from percolating down to foul the groundwater. At the school sites, however, “there is no evidence of contaminated fill leaching downward,” he said.
Caps can also be placed over a fill containing volatile compounds that give off gas to keep them from accumulating in buildings, Musso said. But, he added, “We don’t have those conditions here.”
An impervious cap, he said, “would add another level of effort, another layer of cost. And, if it’s not needed, I think the DEC would agree it’s probably not appropriate to put one in.”
Budget public hearing goes quietly
In a final presentation before next week's budget vote, Superintendent Neal S. Miller and Assistant Superintendent Stuart Mattey reviewed the highlights of for 2012-13.
Billed as a public hearing but seemingly aimed more at a television audience beyond the middle school auditorium, the budget review went off largely without comment.
Earlier, before the official public hearing, incoming board member Dina Brantman questioned what cuts accounted for declines in appropriations for the security and co-curricular budget lines. Mattey ascribed the reduced figures just to “general tightening,” not program cuts.
The budget will be voted on next Tuesday.