Burlingame school to open amid toxic cleanup

The removal of toxic soil that encompasses Burlingame High School will not be complete before the start of the school year and may not happen until well into October, the San Mateo Union High School District interim superintendent said Tuesday.

Both state and district officials said Tuesday that dust containment and student safety during the removal of arsenic, which has forced officials to close off fields around the school, will be a top priority when the school session begins on Aug. 14.

“Children’s safety is the most important thing,” said Interim Superintendent David Miller. “If it’s not a safe environment, we won’t do the excavation.”

In 2005, an excess of PCB, or polychlorinated biphenyls, lead and arsenic were discovered in the school’s soil. A chain-link fence was immediately put in place around school grounds and school and state officials estimated in March that the $5 million cleanup would be finished before the start of the new school year.

But the cleanup, which began in April, has gone slowly, school district officials said, because of budget constraints. Miller said the cleanup work will “be happening soon” after the district was awarded $2.5 million in funding from the State Allocation Board three weeks ago.

While under the direction of the state Department of Toxic Substance Control, crews have already replaced soil contaminated with lead and PCB. The process of removing the arsenic-contaminatedsoil could take up to eight weeks once it is started, according to Mark Malinowski, a state Department of Toxic Substance Control official.

To ensure the safety of students and faculty, measures such as suppressing dust by wetting the dirt will be employed, Malinowski said. He added that screened fencing may be added to the chain-linked fences surrounding the school and air-quality monitoring will be done. Details over mitigating construction noise during classes and whether workers will be on site during dropoff and pickup of students have yet to be sorted out.

Arsenic was found at levels as high as 600 parts per million in 2005. Normal readings would be between 3 to 10 parts per million, said Malinowski. The readings did not signify an “immediate” health risk, but did present problems for long-term exposure, he said.

Although no one knew for sure the source of the toxins, the chemical was a popular weed killer along railroad lines during the early part of the 20th century, said Todd Lee, a project manager.

bfoley@examiner.com

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