Contaminants discovered in soil at Brownell, South Valley

Dirt removal planned at one site; other in preliminary stages

Brownell Middle School is about to undergo a $70 million transformation.

Gilroy Unified School District has hired an environmental firm to remove soil with “higher than normal levels of arsenic in the dirt” at Brownell Middle School, 7800 Carmel St.

According to the documents, a soil sample in the Preliminary Environmental Assessment turned up the arsenic concentration in the north field at Brownell. The soil will be removed from the site under a $36,450 contract with Padre Associates prior to the start of the $70 million, Measure E-funded Brownell Modernization Project.

“The district, in concert with its consultants and general contractor, is in the process of procuring a qualified subcontractor to complete the soil removal,” according to staff. “The process will be under the supervision and direction of our consulting firm to ensure that the guidelines set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency are met.”

Arsenic concentrations ranged from 3.4 to 110 mg/kg in soil samples collected during a 2016 environmental assessment at Brownell, according to a May 28 report by Padre Associates.

These concentrations are nearly 10 times the EPA’s minimum safe levels in soil. For soils, where arsenic develops naturally, federal EPA guidelines for standards of concern begin at 0.39 parts per million (ppm), which is a 1:1 conversion to mg/kg. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, effects from arsenic exposure range from nausea, diarrhea and abdominal pain to lung, liver and bladder cancer depending on concentration and duration.

Elevated levels of lead, organochlorine pesticides (OCPs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were also detected in the soil, prompting “further action to reduce or eliminate the potential impact of these contaminants.” The recommendation was made for “excavation, transportation and on-site disposal of impacted soil at an approved landfill,” the June 4 document reads.

“Subsequent soils testing is part of the removal process, and the soil removal activities will be documented and presented in report form to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control for review and site certification,” staff explained.

An environmental assessment is done “to establish whether a release or potential release of hazardous substances, which potentially pose a threat to human health via ingestion, dermal contact and inhalation exposure pathways, exists at the project site,” according to documents.

Public hearings on the disclosure were conducted at recent school board meetings.

An additional $7,500 contract with Padres was also approved for the development of a Soils Management Plan, which will be submitted to the California Environmental Quality Act consultant for public disclosure.

A major chunk of the estimated overall cost of the project comes in the form of a $57,378,386 “lease-leaseback contract” with Flint Builders. That construction agreement includes all labor and services, materials, equipment, tools, supplies and incidentals necessary to complete the modernization, according to that contract.

“The project is already underway and is scheduled to break ground after the site is approved by various oversight and regulatory bodies, including the EPA,” according to staff. They anticipate mid-July clearance at the earliest.

The Brownell project has multiple phases and is scheduled to be completed by summer of 2021, according to staff.

According to a PEA draft done at South Valley Middle School, which is slated to follow Brownell’s modernization with a $90 million project, OCPs, known as chlordane, were detected in the site soil and “represent a potential threat to the health of site users.” Further assessment of the extent of chlordane (a pesticide banned in 1988) in the soil is recommended by Geocon Consultants, which conducted the site assessment in April.

“South Valley Middle School is being tested under a grant awarded by the EPA’s DTSC schools division,” staff explained. “The process is being managed directly by the DTSC and, although early in the process, has not yielded anything of concern in the soils.”

Brownell, which was constructed in 1949, and South Valley, which was built in 1958 as Gilroy High School, are two of the oldest sites in the district.

The $170 million Measure E was approved by voters in June 2016.

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