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Lebanon's Northwest Elementary project plods along

Written by John Latimer, Lebanon Daily News | Feb 9, 2016 4:30 PM
lebanon elementary site 600xx340.jpg

This parcel at Aspens Business Park in Lebanon is the site of the new Northwest Elementary School. File, Lebanon Daily News

(Lebanon) -- Lebanon School District officials understand the level of scrutiny the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is putting on the Northwest Elementary School project, but that doesn't mean they aren't frustrated by the time-consuming process.

The 19-acre parcel of land on which the district hopes to build the new school is at the Aspens Business Park off the 1400 block of Lehman Street, which was once occupied by Bethlehem Steel's concentrator plant, where iron and other minerals for steel-making were separated from non-essential materials in the soil.

The process earned the land the nickname of "The Concy" and left behind a grey sludge of discarded materials, including some like arsenic, that are toxic.

As part of Act 2 - a land recycling statute that removes a developer, like the school district, from liability if they adhere to prescribed environmental standards -  a remediation plan to safeguard the land has been developed for the parcel. It calls for excavating two-feet of topsoil from exposed areas like the playgrounds, and depositing it elsewhere on the nearly 50-acre property. Areas where topsoil will not be removed, like the parking lot and footprint of the school building, will be sealed by pavement and concrete.

Before the project can move forward, however, DEP must approve the plan.

In January, Brian Hartman, the district's director of Buildings and Grounds, told the board that the DEP's extensive review of the soil remediation plan has delayed the project by about six months, pushing back the planned opening of the school from Aug. 2017 to Jan. 2018.

The project has not been delayed further, Hartman said Monday night, but the DEP continues to play a game of "cat and mouse" by presenting a new list of questions each time previous queries have been answered.

"It has been a lot of back and forth," he said. "I don't know if we are any further than we were two weeks ago."

Solicitor Mike Bechtold agreed with Hartman's assessment of the process, stating after the meeting that some questions and testing samples to establish the environmental quality of the land were unexpected.

"We anticipated the questions about the soil for sure. We anticipated the groundwater, because they are associated with the soils," he said. "But some of the air quality samples, which are no problem, but they are some additional hoops we never anticipated."

Bechtold told the board it was wise to be cautious in waiting to settle on the $500,000 purchase of the land until the project got the go ahead from the DEP. But after the meeting he said he is confident the project will go forward and that the DEP's due diligence will benefit the district in the long run.

"Frankly, I think from the district's perspective we should be appreciative we have to jump through all these hoops now, as opposed to having something rear its ugly head five to 10 years from now," he said. "It's frustrating now, because we have this planning in place, but from a long-term perspective, it's better to cross our T's and dot our I's instead of doing it later."

Hartman said after the meeting he also was confident the project will stay on the track.

"If we get approval from DEP and know that things are moving forward correctly, we will bring next month to the board the Act 2 information, the land and the water (approval), and also the settlement documents to move forward with the purchase of the land," he said.

Expecting the anticipated approval. next week the board will vote to hire two contractors needed for the project.

They include Geo Structures Inc. of Purceville, Va., which will be paid $21,699 to do the engineering required to pour "geopier" footers for the building, that will provide the stability needed in the soft soil.

Also being hired for a fee of $64,000 will be Wright Commissioning of Philadelphia, which will monitor the project to confirm that contractors are complying with the project's design standards, including the LEED - Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design - engineering requirements that will result in energy cost savings, a lower pollution output and a greater reimbursement from the state.


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