Delays due to methane concerns at the city’s old landfill may result in the city school district reversing which new building is constructed first.
The delay also may result in the school district seeking another site for the pre-kindergarten to grade eight building.
Urbana City Schools is building an elementary/middle school on land off Community Drive, adjacent to the closed city landfill. It will also be knocking down and reconstructing the current high school on its existing site.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency recently noted the landfill is next to the land on which the school district will construct the elementary/middle school and that the proposed site for the school is not city-owned land. The landfill creates methane gas as a byproduct of decomposing waste. The gas cannot travel across property boundaries, according to EPA requirements. Since the school building property is not owned by the city, the EPA is requiring the city to prevent methane from crossing that property line.
The landfill and city responsibilities
The landfill closed in 1988, and the city had been monitoring and complying with EPA requirements to deal with issues associated with it. This includes putting a cap on it to fix any groundwater issues, Urbana Director of Administration Kerry Brugger said. The cap, however, trapped the methane in the landfill, rather than allowing it to be burned off, Brugger said.
Brugger said the city will comply with EPA requirements, as it has in the past, but first needs to find out what is required and when requirements must be met. Then the city must find the money to pay for it.
“We’ve got two obligations to live up to,” Brugger said. “The obligation of the community to maintain compliance and work with the Ohio EPA, and to maintain compliance with its regulations and expectations.”
Brugger said the city stopped burning methane from the landfill in 2005. The city had been using propane to help start the flame because not a lot of methane was emitting from the site. The cap on the landfill was placed in 2010 or 2011. The cap was required because the EPA was concerned about what might have been leaching into the groundwater from the landfill. The cap helps water run off the site, not into the groundwater.
“At this point, it’s unfortunate these details weren’t identified when the school was working through its due diligence,” Brugger said. “Somewhere along the line, it wasn’t communicated or (the EPA) didn’t understand that the city didn’t own the property.”
Timeline causes difficulties
Urbana City Schools Superintendent Charles Thiel said the EPA issue is putting a crimp in the construction timeline.
Thiel said the school buildings have to be built in a five-year time frame from when bonds were issued to pay for the project. That occurred in March 2015. This is an Internal Revenue Service rule, to prevent entities from saying they will construct something, but then sitting on the money, which then collects interest.
Thiel said the (Ohio Facilities Construction Commission) is willing to work with the timeline because it does not want to build a school, then build another one later.
“The OFCC understands the issue from our standpoint,” Thiel said. “They’ve been guiding us, working with us. They believe we’ve done our due diligence with the environmental site assessment and testing. It’s not an issue from the school side. If it was something we refused to do or was done improperly, they would feel differently. But they want a resolution before we move forward with the project. They don’t want to build a $34 million school and then 10 years from now, and oh well, the problem is not resolved, you’ve got to build a new school someplace else.”
Changing school construction order
The school district planned to build the elementary/middle school first, then move students over there to free up space for students to be moved around the high school while parts of it were knocked down and reconstructed. Site work was to start this summer on the elementary/middle school.
With the EPA investigating what must be done with the landfill, the district cannot move forward on that project until there is some kind of plan or resolution for remediation. It may take months to get that information, Thiel said.
“We didn’t get answers on Monday that we know what the problem is and how to fix it or steps to take or timelines,” Thiel said regarding required EPA remediation. The city and school district met with EPA officials Monday.
The Ohio Facilities Construction Commission – formerly the Ohio School Facilities Commission – ordered the school district to stop preparations for site construction of the elementary/middle school, Thiel said. The district can do some design work, like internal design, but the site plans need to be put on hold.
The school district is considering building the high school first. It would require moving some student grades to Local Intermediate, which was closed previously as a cost-cutting measure. Currently, the Madison-Champaign Educational Service Center is using space there for its preschool, but the ESC is moving the preschool to the former Lawnview School on South U.S. Route 68 this summer.
The hope had been to use Local Intermediate to house students while both buildings were being constructed, which could save time. Thiel said now it looks like they will not be able to do construction concurrently on both buildings.
If the architect and construction manager can figure it out, some high school work – such as removing the east building – could take place as soon as this fall and winter. That will depend on whether the architect can switch to getting the high school plans finalized. This still will require moving students. Grades 7 and 8 would likely be moved to Local Intermediate; sixth grade and grades 9-12 would be at the high school, but using different portions of the building so that the east building can be demolished.
The east building contains classrooms, a study hall room and a vocational agriculture shop. There are also two modular classrooms north of that building. Students could not be in those classrooms during work on the east building.
There will be other issues involved with constructing the high school first. Not only do students have to be moved, but afterschool activities – and transporting students to those activities, such as band or choir – will be involved. It could increase costs for the school district, Thiel said.
If the school district can start work on the high school, students would be relocated for the start of the new school year in August. Some site work and tearing down the east building could take place in the fall and winter this year. And then more construction work would continue throughout the school year and in the summer next year.
A new school site?
Thiel added if the remediation required by the EPA takes too long, and the high school gets built but no work can be done on the elementary/middle school, the district may have to look into another building site.
The district had been considering finding another building site for that location previously considering disputes it was having with the city over access roads to the site.
“We may have to consider an alternative site for the pre-kindergarten to grade 8 building if it gets to be a too long a process,” Thiel said. “I’m personally kicking myself. I should have just jumped on an alternative site in June.”
Future meetings planned
Brugger said city officials do not have another meeting set up with the Ohio EPA right now. The city is in the process of working with the EPA to compile the data it requires to set remediation needs and timelines.
Brugger said he hopes the city will have more information and what needs to be done and on what timeline within a few months.
Thiel added he wants the public to know it is not as if the district is not still working on the project, even if site design work for one building has stopped. The district is still working on internal design and other necessary steps so that when the site location is settled, construction can begin.
“The community wants to see action with construction. But it does take a long time,” he said. “It’s not like we are sitting and twiddling our thumbs.”
Casey S. Elliott may be reached at 937-652-1331 ext. 1772 or on Twitter @UDCElliott.