High School toxic cleanup under way

The $4 million Burlingame High School toxic-soil removal project to save redwood trees and prevent potential long-term health effects began Monday after toxins were discovered nearly three years ago.

The project should be completed by the end of January,said Superintendent David Miller of the San Mateo Union High School District, which is paying for the job.

Digging began Monday and soil removal will start next week in the school’s rear, Miller said. Infected areas will remain fenced off during the process.

Trucks will carry about 200 loads of arsenic-infected soil from seven areas around the school, including its front lawn and athletic field. Work will be done from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

The actual cleanup, which costs $1.9 million, is the last phase of the toxic-soil removal process, said Angela Blanchette, spokeswoman for the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, which is overseeing the project. The rest of the money is for relandscaping projects.

“Elevated levels” of the toxins were discovered between December 2004 and March 2007 during the school’s renovation, Blanchette said. Polychlorinated biphenyls , which can cause acne-like skin conditions in adults and neurobehavioral and immunological changes in children, were cleaned up from a leaky transformer during spring break in April. PCBs are also known to cause cancer in animals.

As much as 531 parts per million of arsenic were found in the soil; the normal amount is 10 parts per million. Some areas of soil could be partly removed and filled with clean substances, while a concrete barrier could cover others.

Mesh nets will be installed six inches below infected surfaces to prevent digging below that point. That way, the arsenic cannot come back up to the surface, Miller said.

The main reason for the removal is to save the large trees surrounding the school, although prolonged exposure can cause adverse health effects, Blanchette said.

The source of the arsenic is unknown but might be from previously used arsenic-based pesticides, she said.

Miller said he has not received complaints about the process, but that “ofcourse there will be inconveniences” like with any project.

The city’s young athletes and campers have had a problem with it. The Parks and Recreation Department has been unable to use the field for camps and sports for the last five years, the last of which because of the toxic findings, Director Randy Schwartz said. Before that, trailers were on fields during the renovation.

Spring camps should kick off year-round activities such as BHS athletics practices on the synthetic grass field once the project is finished, Schwartz said.

Timeline of toxin removal

» December 2004: Crews first discover “elevated levels” of arsenic

» 2005: Excess of polychlorinated biphenyls chemicals found, fence erected

» March 2007: School/state officials estimate arsenic removal to be completed before the 2007-08 school year

» April: Polychlorinated biphenyls chemicals cleaned up

» Aug. 14: School year begins before removal

» Monday: Digging begins for arsenic removal

» Nov. 12 to Nov. 16: Arsenic removal to begin

» End of January: Arsenic expected to be gone, replaced with clean soil

*Source: Superintendent’s office

mrosenberg@examiner.com

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