Still Waiting: Is it safe to breathe the air at BOE’s STEM school site?


Lisa Baldwin and other enquiring minds still want to know – but they’ll have to keep on waiting for an answer

By Roger McCredie –

Concerned citizens will apparently have to wait awhile yet before the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources officially gives a clean bill of health to the site of the county’s new STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Math) school, although construction has already begun on the $5.5 million project.

County Board of Education received an e-mail last month from Donna DeCarlo, of the state Department of Environmental and Natural Resources’ Inactive Hazardous Sites Branch, saying an investigation plan submitted by the site’s former tenant is “still in the planning stages,” although DENR asked for the plan “within 90 days” more than a year ago.

The news from IHSB was the latest non-development in the controversy surrounding the property.

Almost as soon as the Buncombe County Board of Education announced plans to construct the new school as an addition to its headquarters on Bingham Road (on a part of the old Square D plant property) a controversy arose as to whether the site was unfit due to possible groundwater and air vapor contamination generated by industries that had previously been located at or near the site. The prior site occupant was Schneider Electric, which sold out to the BOE in 1989 and moved further uphill to another former Square D location.

Discussion of the possibility of lingering contamination escalated into a lopsided and acrimonious debate between, on one hand, a majority of BOE members and administrators, who had considered the STEM school plans a done deal, and, on the other hand, independent watchdogs and one holdout BOE member who maintained that there was evidence of “vapor intrusion” at the site, including testimony of employees who had become ill while working in the BOE building.

In response to earlier concerns about possible pollution, Schneider Electric produced previous studies of its own showing no evidence of “excessive” chemical presence. But in February, 2012, DENR informed Superintendent of Schools Tony Baldwin that they had received a phone call from one of his own school board members, Lisa Baldwin (no kin) expressing concerns that the site might indeed be contaminated. Lisa Baldwin and some private citizens said Schneider’s investigations had been perfunctory and pressed for further investigation. This interruption of the BOE’s agenda earned Baldwin a reputation among her colleagues as an ill-informed, self-serving troublemaker who was deliberately impeding progress.

Baldwin stuck to her guns and called attention to reports from previous BOE employees who had become ill while working there. At least two employees later contracted cancer; one died. One ex-employee called the BOE offices “a sick building.” Eventually, BOE hired a local firm to conduct site tests for vapor intrusion (from contaminated groundwater) but employees claimed these tests were perfunctory and inconclusive.

Early this past May, representatives of DENR and IHSB journeyed to Asheville to receive input from Lisa Baldwin and Buncombe Forward Chairman Robert Malt, and separately from Superintendent Baldwin and Schneider Electric officials. Media were specifically excluded from the meeting and no official summary of what took place was ever made public.

Baldwin, meanwhile, had obtained a copy of a letter dated March 20, 2012 – more than a year earlier – from DENR to Bryce Wendland of Schneider Electric giving him 90 days to draw up a “remedial investigation plan” addressing 17 points relating to determining, once and for all, the level of contamination, if any, at the BOE site. Baldwin at once filed a public information request for a copy of Schneider’s report upon its completion.

Then things got really quiet.

In June, Baldwin e-mailed DeCarlo, who had authored the 2012 letter to Schneider, asking if any response had been received. DeCarlo replied that it had, but that review and approval of it would take three to four weeks. When that time had passed, Baldwin re-enquired. It was then DeCarlo told her that approval of Schneider’s plan was still in the works.

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