A Tale of Two Toxic Schools

What are we telling our kids when we put them in these environments?

Take a look

*** Apologies – NJ.Com took down the photos, which were originally published on my “NJ Voices” column at NJ.Com. I was able to save the text, but not the photos. What assholes.

 West Brook Middle School. Paramus, NJ. 
Discovery of pesticide contaminated soils outraged parents, prompted the Mayor to order the school closed, and forced the resignation of the Superintendent.


The issue of children’s exposure to toxic chemicals while at schools and day care centers has exploded as a political issue in New Jersey, as a result of several high profile cases reported by media. A series of tragedies across the state have exposed major flaws and breakdowns in DEP’s toxic site cleanup program (see:–

TOXIC SCHOOL SCANDAL SPOTLIGHTS WEAK NEW JERSEY LAW — Parents Get No Notice of Child’s Exposure in Deregulated State Clean-Up Program

In the most recent reaction – which again dodges the underlying toxic site cleanup issues – the Senate Environment Committee will hear a bill today (S 480) sponsored by Senator Robert Gordon (D/Bergen) http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2008/Bills/S0500/480_I1.HTM

The bill is in response to last year’s extraordinary fiasco in Paramus’ West Brook Middle School. In a case that received national attention, in late May of 2007, the Bergen Record broke a story in which Paramus Public School officials knowingly failed to report the presence of the banned pesticides aldrin, dieldrin, and chlordane on the campus of Westbrook.

In response to outraged parents, the Mayor ordered the school closed, the Superintendent was fired for failing to notify parents and covering up the problem, and a Bergen Record reporter was arrested for taking soil samples at the site. http://centerforinvestigativereporting.org/blogs&start=120

Parents and day care operators are still reeling since the August 2006 “Kiddie Kollege” episode where 60 toddlers were exposed to poisonous toxic mercury vapors in a day care center located in a converted former mercury thermometer factory. The factory had failed to comply with a DEP cleanup order for over 12 years (see:

MERCURY-LADEN DAY-CARE CENTER IN NEW JERSEY IS NO ANOMALY — Lax State Brownfield Laws Make Tragedy an “Accident Waiting to Happen”

The Legislature and Governor were forced to respond – last January, Corzine signed a law, and issued a press release touting his reforms. See : Jan-11-07 Governor Corzine Signs Legislation to Improve Environmental Safety at Schools and Child Care Centers http://www.nj.gov/governor/news/news/approved/20070111.html

The Corzine law was a band aid on a gaping wound and failed to resolve the underlying flawed DEP toxic cleanup program – see:

CORZINE URGED TO CLOSE LOOPHOLES IN TOXIC School & DAY-CARE BILL — Conditional Veto CouldStrike Out Exemptions and Strengthen Safeguards

Soon thereafter, dozens of schools and more that 400 day care centers located on toxic sites – even Superfund sites – were disclosed in Paramus, Garfield, Union City, Trenton, Gloucester City, Allentown, Clifton, Camden, and scores of towns as a result a of major flaws in DEP toxic site remediation and NJ Schools Construction Corporation programs (See:

RADIOACTIVE SCHOOL SITE IS TIP OF NEW JERSEY TOXIC ICEBERG — Over 100 School Site approvals expedited under Secret Deal

  Garfield Middle School. Garfield, NJ.

The Garfield school was built on a toxic waste site and was undergoing active remediation of toxic chemicals in soils and groundwater when the school open last year. Vapor intrusion sampling had not been conducted – all without the knowledge of working class parents.

To prepare for the hearing, I thought I’d take a ride up to Bergen County and check out the West Brook Middle School, as well as another far more toxic contaminated school site in nearby Garfield.

The Garfield case was far worse than Paramus. Garfield, a disadvantaged “Abbott” district, had a middle school built on a toxic waste site. Amazingly, chemical vapors were still being extracted from soils when the school was opened last year – all without the knowledge of working class parents (See:

New Jersey Lacks Policy to Protect Public From Chemical Intrusion (Herald News) http://www.childproofing.org/news/archives/2007/09/september_24_-.htm

  polluting old industrial sites surround and hover over school

The Paramus and Garfield cases provide a strong contrast in toxic health risks to children in a wealthy suburban (Paramus) versus a working class disadvantaged community .

Take a look at the photo’s and compare the two schools, with respect to several attributes: including the surrounding neighborhood, the school facilities, the natural features, the overall ambiance.

Think about what the kids see and experience at these two school settings: What do the kids see? What are we telling them?

  kids look out the window and see monitoring wells measuring toxic vapors is soil and groundwater under and just feet away from school
   entering school surrounded by old industrial sites
   No soccer fields, tennis courts, track, grass play grounds, or nature – adjacent stream and grounds are fenced off toxic hazards
   kids pass active toxic vapor cleanup system on the way to gym.

Toxic chemical vapors are being vacuumed out of soil to avoid migration directly into school building.

   polluting diesel motors – on school grounds – power toxic cleanup system
   kids learn to read emergency toxic warnings
   kids look out window and see adjacent stream is an open sewer
   polluting old industrial sites are neighbors
   uncontrolled and unmonitored demolition and toxic site cleanup ongoing a couple hundred feet from the schoolyard.
   About 200 feet behind the school – across the railroad tracks and stormwater impoundment – is the “Early Childhood Center”.
   The view leaving the “Early Childhood Center” – lurking abandoned contaminated industrial site across the stream and polluted stream.


Compare what the Garfield kids experience to what the Paramus kids enjoy – I won’t even comment – let the pictures tell the story:

   Kids enter school in the shadow of a stately sycamore – not industrial smokestacks.
   Landscaping – not monitoring wells – frames school.
   Tennis anyone?
   Kids look out the window and long to play soccer at recess and after school – not avoid toxic industrial sites and polluted streams.
   Signs welcome kids to play on athletic fields – not warn them about toxic waste cleanups sites.

   Abundant nature to enjoy and explore at the schoolyard – not toxic industrial sites and polluted streams.

   Kids in both schools pledge allegiance to the same flag – but how long can these huge disparities be maintained under one nation?

As Lincoln said:

“A house divided against itself can not stand”

   Two police and several utility crew men supervise a minor construction site across the street from the school –

Why can’t similar resources be found to monitor massive demolition and toxic site cleanup next to Garfield Middle School?

   Kids can enjoy a place for quite contemplation or moments of young love – but where does one find solace and privacy amidst the pavement of Garfield??

If you’ve gotten this far and are not ashamed, you’re not alive.

  1. hglindquist
    February 21st, 2008 at 09:47 | #1

    Looks like another great post, Mr. Wolfe! I’m going to spend some time and digest it. Probably have nuanced comments later. But in any case … thanks … you are good at this kind of thing. (It ALMOST makes me feel guilty about yanking your chain elsewhere … but not really*wink*)
    Keep writing. Good stuff.

  2. ThomasReid
    February 21st, 2008 at 10:10 | #2

    Bill Wolfe,
    What’s your point in comparing the two schools? One is located in a suburban area and the other in an urban center. Paramus spends $14,436 per student of which local property taxpayers pay $13,600 per student. Garfield spends $15 209 per student of which local property taxpayers pay $4,910 per student. The West Brook Middle School in Paramus was built in 1960 and the state finished construction of the new Garfield Middle School in 2007.
    “The Garfield Board of Education picked out the location for Garfield Middle School, a strip shopping center along Lanza Avenue next to the new Early Childhood Center @ Ray Street, creating a large “educational zone” within the city”. ”
    “The state-of-the-art school project [was] fully funded and managed by the SCC, which was initiated by Governor McGreevey on July 29, 2002 to implement New Jersey’s unprecedented $8.6 billion school construction program.”
    Why should we feel ashamed about the difference between the two schools?
    Garfield has a new “state-of-the-art” middle school paid 100 percent by state taxpayers and Paramus is maintaining a 48 year-old middle school. Garfield is spending more per student than Paramus thanks to a $10,299 per student subsidy from state taxpayers. What would you have us do to make the city of Garfield look like Paramus? Level the city and plant grass and trees?
    As for the way each school’s soil contamination problem was handled, not even close.
    It took officials 46 years to realize the soil on the grounds of Paramus’ West Brook Middle School was contaminated by pesticides from when the property had been a lettuce farm. School officials found out about the problem in December 2006 and parents found out about it in the newspaper in May 2007.
    The soil contamination problem at the Garfield Middle School was discovered after the new school was built, but before the school opened. The school district took action to fix the problem and notified parents about it before any student ever spent a single day at the school.
    “Parents weren’t notified of the pollution on the site until the district sent letters dated Aug. 10 — weeks before school started. Days later, state and local school district officials held a meeting with parents at which they told them about the soil vapor remediation system in place and that the 178,000-square foot building, which took three years and $37.4 million to build, was safe for staff and students to occupy.”
    You should be ashamed for attempting to portray this as a rich vs. poor issue. It’s not.

  3. jessea
    February 21st, 2008 at 10:43 | #3

    ThomasReid – posts like yours we learn from. Very impressive and fact finding. Thank you for filling in the gaps.

  4. rightwaynj
    February 21st, 2008 at 11:59 | #4

    Ah, liberal ideals at there worst.
    It’s not fair that Garfield is a factory city and Paramus is a suburb…
    It’s not fair that Garfield doesn’t have trees and Paramus does…
    It’s not fair that Garfield kids have to look at factories and Paramus kids get to look at grass…
    Is it fair that Garfield is spending more per pupil than Paramus?
    Is it fair that NJ taxpayers are subsidizing Garfield? And I don’t only mean in schools.
    Is it fair that Malcom X Shabazz high school in Newark has a world-class football and track stadium and my town’s high school in the suburbs couldn’t possibly afford it? Yet, I’m paying for their stadium?
    At what point is it enough? At what point is the cup full?
    How deep into socialism do you want to push? We’re well on our way.
    At what point does some amount of personal responsibility kick in? Does it EVER or is everything the fault of those…RICH PEOPLE?
    How dare you even attempt to say that enough is not being done?
    You attempt at class warfare is way out of line.

  5. nohesitation
    February 21st, 2008 at 17:05 | #5

    “Class warfare” – good pun about a schools debate!
    I don’t want to go any further into socialism than that worshipped savior: Jesus Christ.
    Would you send you kid to that subsidized Garfield or Newark school? Didn’t think so.
    ThomasReid – I assume you are a fiscal conservative, so am surprised that you apparently have not read Inspector General Cooper’s Report to Governor Codey on the mismanagement of the Schools Construction n Corporation (posted on my web links),. Cooper condemns the fact that SCC spent over $330 million of taxpayer money on acquiring highly contaminated lands “patently unsuitable” for schools. Hundreds of millions more education dollars were wasted cleanups.
    All this so politically connected developers and property owners could reserve the clean lands for development and ratables.
    Right. Put teachers and kids at risk and waste money subsidizing developers. The NJ way.
    Folks should rad the extensive documentation I provided in links before cherry picking a few irrelevant “facts”

  6. ThomasReid
    February 22nd, 2008 at 12:42 | #6

    Bill (AKA nohesitation),
    The facts I provide are relevant because each one refutes your premise that taxpayers should be ashamed of Garfield.
    In this case, New Jersey state income taxpayers paid $37.4 million for a school to be built on a property selected by the locally elected Garfield Board of Education. No thanks for that. The so-called “wealthy” are the bad guys in your “cherry picked” version of the story.
    If the Board selected a site for the school “so politically connected developers and property owners could reserve the clean lands for development and ratables”, then you should have written a post critical of the people responsible within the “working class disadvantaged community” for doing so. Instead you tired to shift the blame to taxpayers and “wealthy” people living in Paramus. (I seriously doubt that the Garfield School Board said, hey, let’s build our new school on a toxic waste site.)
    The SCC, the state agency responsible for the project in Garfield, failed to test the soil before the property was purchased or before the school was built. That’s not the fault of state taxpayers. Place the blame on the state employees who were responsible for managing the school construction project, not state taxpayers, stuck with paying their salaries and benefits.
    If politicians, state employees and Garfield school officials are lying about the safety of the school for students and teachers, then blame them, not the taxpayers.
    And if tax dollars are being wastes “subsidizing developers. The NJ way”, then write a post about how New Jersey taxpayers are being ripped off. Don’t write posts making the people who pay the bills in this state the bad guys. It’s their money being wasted.
    I am well aware of Inspector General Mary Jane Cooper’s report on the SCC. She found that schools built by the state’s School Construction Corp (SCC) cost 45 percent more than those school construction projects paid for and managed locally. Her report said what taxpayers already knew; the SCC blew though $8.6 billion though “mismanagement, fiscal malfeasance, conflicts of interest and waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars”. This is just one more example of what happens when the government uses other people’s money.
    Write a post about how the more money New Jersey government takes, the more it wastes. The people paying the bills in New Jersey are not the folks who should be ashamed of the taxpayer shakedown schemes that never end in this state.
    And finally, perhaps you could tell us what you mean by your comment, “I don’t want to go any further into socialism than that worshipped savior Jesus Christ” ? Christ preached personal charity, not government socialism though property confiscation and the threat of imprisonment. Christ was killed by the government if you recall.

  7. nohesitation
    February 22nd, 2008 at 13:33 | #7

    ThomasReid – sadly, you apparently fail to grasp the fact that PEOPLE are more than TAXPAYERS.
    “ENVIRONMENT” is more than a BUILDING.
    REALITY is more than MONEY.
    So sorry.

  8. ThomasReid
    February 22nd, 2008 at 14:37 | #8

    You are unable to grasp the fact that TAXPAYERS are PEOPLE and that FACTS are REALITY.
    The REALIY is that you want more of other people’s MONEY for the purpose of BUILDING your idea of utopia. That’s the “ENVIRONMENT” you want the REOPLE of New Jersey to live in.

  9. NoMoreMold
    February 25th, 2008 at 02:06 | #9

    Re: toxicity of mold and school buildings
    The most common source of toxins in schools, apart from the complete idiocy of building schools on known toxic sites, is from mold.
    The latest research shows very common building molds DO produce toxins, some, hundreds of toxins for one type of fungi. Please be aware that it is OLD science to state that mold is everywhere and no one should worry about it. Mold is not supposed to be growing in our buildings. This is a recent phenomenon fueled by use of air conditioning, HVAC systems, tight buildings, poor design, shoddy construction, poor maintenance, and recent materials used in construction that create damp, toxic buildings.
    Visit http://www.schoolmoldhelp.org, Information – Sick Building Symptoms, for extensive information about mold and health. Also, the Mold Research page and others, for over 1,000 articles on the topic, including prevention and what to look for in a property to help avoid unhealthy buildings. For more info on biotoxin related illnesses from fungi, visit http://www.biotoxin.info, Resources – Webcasts. Watch that your children’s schools do not have mold in them, this is very common, due to leaks and poor construction or lack or maintenance. Our site may help you prevent mold exposures at schools and in your home!

  10. nohesitation
    February 25th, 2008 at 10:14 | #10

    Thanks NoMoreMold – I agree.
    Glad to see NJEA join this debate in Senate testimony last week.
    Are you involved in DHSS indoor standards regulatory development? Law (P.L. 2007, c.1) mandated regulations be proposed for schools and day cares by January 2008. Here is link: http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2006/Bills/PL07/1_.HTM
    Check out what PEER is doing to help federal workers deal with sick building syndrome:

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