Arsenic Found in Sag Harbor Learning Center Soil

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A retaining wall behind the Sag Harbor Learning Center. Board of Education members discovered this week that arsenic was discovered this spring in soil near the retaining wall on the property. Michael Heller photo.

Arsenic — a chemical that can be toxic — was detected in soils found on the Division Street property that is home to the Sag Harbor Learning Center this past spring by contractors and architects renovating the former Stella Maris Regional School building into administrative offices and pre-kindergarten facilities for the Sag Harbor School District.

However, during a meeting of the Sag Harbor School Board of Education on Monday, it was revealed the board was not informed of the soil contamination until that session, several months after it was initially discovered.

IBI Group, a global architecture, engineering and technology firm that is managing construction of the new school facility, told the board Monday that trace amounts of arsenic had been found in the soil of the Learning Center towards the exterior of the property, in close proximity to the existing retaining wall.  

According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a government agency, scientists and pediatricians are increasingly concerned about subtle and long-range health effects rising from low-level exposures to arsenic, especially in infants and in children, who are most commonly exposed to the chemical in drinking water.

On Monday, little information was offered by Ed Bernhauer and Bill Sands, of the IBI Group, as to how much arsenic was detected, or how much it cost the district to remove from the property. However, according to a June 6, 2019 memo from Renu Contracting & Restoration, approximately 300 tons of contaminated soil were removed from the site, at a cost of $24,327.

According to Mr. Berhauer, the contamination was discovered when contractors were on site performing final grading and needed to remove excess amounts of soil, tested it and discovered the trace amounts of arsenic. Mr. Bernhauer told the board that when arsenic is detected, a third-party agency must test the soil. After the tests came back with more arsenic then deemed acceptable by health standards, the soil had to be trucked out of state, he said.   

“We believe the source of the arsenic was due to leaching of the pressure treated lumber that was used to keep the dirt up along that wall area,” Mr. Sands said.

While the board of education was unaware of the situation, Mr. Bernhauer said the district was notified immediately once the soil sample testing was completed.

“I don’t know why we didn’t find out for nine months. I’m baffled,” board member Chris Tice said. 

On Tuesday, board of education president Jordana Sobey confirmed that the district was notified through documentation of the soil contamination when it was first discovered in April, but that the board was only made aware of it at Monday night’s business meeting.

Ms. Sobey said she did not have any information about who in the district was informed, and the reasoning as to why the board was not made aware of the contamination.   

The issue was raised as a result of the board needing to approve a series of change orders for the Learning Center, including two change orders for the removal of the contaminated soil, which noted the cost and amount of soil removed from the site.

“I wouldn’t know whether all 300 tons were contaminated or whether they simply removed all the soil from the area to be conservative,” Ms. Sobey said on Monday, in front of a clearly shocked board of education and audience.

Ms. Sobey said that the district has not yet decided whether to do sample testing for the rest of the property. At the meeting, she said the IBI Group is going to come back to the board with information about cost of doing additional sampling to make sure the property is free of arsenic. From there, Ms. Sobey said the board will make a decision as to whether to expand sample testing or not.

Susan Lamontagne, a former board of education member, said she was “shaken” when she saw soil contamination at the Learning Center on the board’s agenda for Monday night, adding she was on the board of education in April of 2019 and was never made aware of the situation.

“I don’t recall seeing anything. It really bothers me that some things were reported to the school and not reported to the board and I think that’s so serious,” Ms. Lamontagne said after Monday’s meeting.  

“There are so many things that didn’t make sense,” she said, adding that while she was on the board, change work orders had been made for new roofing, flooring and security improvements which she said should have already been included in the bond.

“I feel like this is the final straw. It’s still delayed…. It’s an absolute mess,” Ms. Lamontagne said to the board, calling for a full audit of the Learning Center project.

At Monday’s meeting, the IBI Group also presented the board a draft punch list to finalize construction at the Learning Center. The property was purchased and renovated through a $10.23 million bond approved by voters in 2016. After several delays, in December, the board of education was told the district would be able to take over the building on December 31, 2019.

However, on Monday — almost two weeks after that deadline — Mr. Bernhauer said the project was further delayed after contractor delays.

Ms. Tice stressed that the board and public were told that the building would be ready to hand over minus a punch list before 2020. The building was originally supposed to be handed over to the district before the start of the 2019-2020 school year, to be used for pre-kindergarten and administrative offices.  

Ms. Tice added that the punch list they received includes fundamental projects that need to be complete, including ceilings and flooring.  

“I was there today,” Board member Brian DeSesa added. “There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. Before you get to a punch list, there are ceilings open, and flooring that is not down.” 

“We’re not there yet based on the performance of the contractors,” Mr. Sands said, adding that some contractors haven’t been showing up or getting their work done on time, which has pushed back other projects within the Learning Center.  

Ms. Tice urged the IBI Group to be as direct and transparent as possible with the board and public. When the board asked for a final date, Mr. Bernhauer said he could not offer one but would present at the board’s next meeting on January 27.

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