Public Forum on M-D Construction: Informative…and at Times Very Heated
Wednesday night, Oct. 14, Wilton school officials held a community forum for parents and members of the community to ask questions about the Miller-Driscoll renovation. Specifically on the agenda were representatives from TRC, the firm engaged to identify hazardous materials present in the building and manage the removal before and during construction, as well as the project’s construction manager.
While officials hoped the keep the meeting informational and related to construction-specific questions, not surprisingly it turned contentious several times as members of the public on record as opposed to the project were present to question officials about the project’s cost and scope. As well, some parents present expressed a long-standing distrust of officials and whether or not they’ve been forthcoming with information.
The initial presentation started with an overview of the project by Jessie Saylor, an architect with Tai Soo Kim. Much of his presentation has been heard in the many meetings and briefings the building committee has given to various committees (BoS, BoE, BoF, and the public, etc.), and it covered:
- the need for renovation (replace mechanicals and systems, roof replacement, updated security and safety, updated technology, traffic flow, growing pre-K program, update an aging building) and
- how the design was conceived (separating out the pre-K entrance, circulation, central cafeteria, more connected structure, reducing exterior wall space, etc.).
Next up were Erik Plimpton and Steve Arienti from TRC, the firm hired to find, assess and oversee removal of any hazardous materials in the Miller-Driscoll building. Plimpton said their work is standard and a “typical step” for any kind of construction project.
“Any time you’ve got a building that’s going to undergo a renovation project, particularly one of this age and condition, you need to investigate for hazardous building materials so you can properly address them during the renovation process so things can be done in a safe manner,” Plimpton told the crowd.
He said that the majority of the school was built in the 60s, “a time vintage you’d expect to find hazardous materials, because that the time they were being used. That’s the expectation for any building built in that time.”
He confirmed that hazardous materials were found in the M-D building but he said that doesn’t necessarily pose a danger: “Indeed we did find hazardous materials. That alone doesn’t mean there’s a hazard, it just means that there are materials there that have to be dealt with properly during the renovation.”
Arienti was the chief inspector on the M-D project and he presented a detailed overview of the kinds of hazardous materials found, where they were found and how much of each material was found.
Hazardous Materials Found
Arienti noted that there is already an “asbestos management plan” for the building, performed as required by the EPA and the CT Department of Public Health every 3 years. As part of that plan, a licensed investigator looks at all the asbestos present and makes sure it’s intact.
Both Miller and Driscoll wings have asbestos present in places like floor tiles, chalkboards, insulation of fire doors, pipe insulation, mechanicals, fireproofing in boiler room and exterior caulking and glazing.” The majority of the asbestos is “non friable”–“meaning they can’t become airborne unless they are sanded, grinned or broken down,” he said.
There was some friable material found (pipe insulation and fireproofing) mostly in inaccessible areas, such as above ceilings and behind wall cavities.
Arienti said “not much lead was found in the building.”
The majority of paints tested on walls, doors and windows either had non-detectible levels or very low levels of lead. Higher levels were found in the paint coatings of the structural steel in non-accessible areas behind walls and ceilings of both Miller and Driscoll. For work in a school, EPA regulations kick in for repair and painting, and Arienti said there are special standards of cleaning and removal of lead paint which will be followed during the renovation.
He added that the paint is “mostly intact and not flaking, deteriorating, they’re in good condition.”
Arienti explained that there are three classifications of PCB:
- “unregulated”⎯meaning PCBs were not found or at a level at less than 1 part per million (ppm)
- “State level regulated” PCBs⎯low level PCBs, regulated by the CT Department of Environmental Protection, at levels between 1-50 ppm
- “Federally regulated” PCBs⎯regulated by the Federal EPA, and are at levels greater than 50 ppm. Those have different disposal requirements.
He said that the PCBs found were not airborne. TRC found 80-percent of PCBs found in Miller-Driscoll were classified as “unregulated” or “state regulated” (the two lower two levels). The remainder (20-percent) were of the higher, federally-regulated levels.
According to Arienti, such numbers were “atypical for a building of this vintage. We’ve done a lot of schools of this age, we usually find a lot of PCBs at high level; for this building being built in the 60s, we were expecting a lot more [than were found].”
Generally the materials PCBs found in caulking and glazing were generally intact, not brittle, not flaking, not falling off the building.
Of the materials found at the federally-regulated higher levels, Arienti said two were “just above the 50 ppm criteria” were found in exterior window caulking on the Driscoll side; three caulkings were 2,000-3,000 ppm, one of which was on the “old garage” on the northwest side of the building and not part of the school; and some of the large hallway windows in the Driscoll cafeteria doors.
There was one caulk that was found at >150,000 ppm, on an exterior window caulking across one set of windows.
He explained that the data was gathered by walking through the building and looking throughout, getting an inventory of the materials and surfaces and different types of PCBs, and that it was “not just a sampling.”
Later, Plimpton clarified even more, explaining that they try to identify all the homogenous materials–identifying the different types of caulks like window, door, expansion, as well as different caulk in Miller and in Driscoll. Representative samples of each type of caulk would be taken, and they typically test at least 3 samples of each type. “If there are 15 [of the same] windows we’re not sampling all 15, but whatever that data is, would characterize that type of window.”
Other regulated items
Among these types of hazardous materials are light fixtures with mercury, fluorescent bulbs, exterior halogen bulbs, printed circuit boards, and the like. These materials would be taken care of by CT-DEEP licensed contractors. “Everything will get containerized properly, handled properly, recycled or put out for disposal.”
Although the investigators were pleased at what they felt was “less than expected” amounts of hazardous materials, “What we found absolutely has to be dealt with during renovation to protect everyone’s health and safety,” Plimpton said.
To that end, he explained that abatement specifications are put together by TRC to remove the different materials. Among the specifications are training, licensing and certification requirements that contractors will need to have; work methods and activities; engineering controls–for example, the polysheeting that goes up to contain particulates, air filtration, and negative pressurizing so that any particles that get disturbed won’t escape or get released out of the work area.
At the request of school superintendent Kevin Smith, Plimpton reviewed the different methods the crews would use during abatement and remediation to contain any of the hazardous materials. “Whether it’s asbestos or PCB, typically the same type of containment is used. It’s very prescribed in the industry, because of very strict OSHA and state regulations on how you have to build the containment,” he said.
They use a “couple layers of polysheeting” around the work area to create a containment around the area in question. They use a HEPA air filtration device inside that work area that exhausts out to the exterior, which creates a negative air flow into that work area “so that no particles escape from the work area.” All of the work materials are cleaned and double bagged within the contained work area and they are removed via a waste trailer. Workers are decontaminated on the way out.
Not only do all the contractors have to be licensed and have specialized training, TRC will act as third-party oversight. “We’re here to make sure that contractor is following the rules and specs, using the right work practices, to verify that what was supposed to be removed is removed, and do whatever clearance tested again before any unprotected worker or anyone else from the general public can go into that space.”
Plimpton added that the abatement plan has to go to the EPA for approval before the project even goes out to bid. He said they received an approval on both the investigative process that was done as well as the remediation plans, in early September.
Renovation Project Phases
This part of the presentation was given by Mike Douyard, the Turner Construction project manager who is on site and will be in charge of the project day-to-day. He explained the phasing of the project, which has been broken down into five main phases.
He said it was structured “to minimize removal of hazardous materials while school is in session; provide a safe environment for children, faculty and the community; and to provide a sequence so that the school can function in a way that’s not that disruptive.”
Demolishing of the first section–the peach core–will begin over the December Holiday break.
Noise and sound barriers will be used to eliminate as much disruption on the inside of the school as possible. Hard barriers will protect against dust and construction separation, built out of 2-hour fire-wall. Some windows that are close to construction will be boarded up and protected as a precaution.
Questions about Construction and Abatement
Marisa Lowthert, a longstanding critic of environmental issues at Miller-Driscoll, questioned why TRC didn’t perform tests to determine levels for airborne PCBs.
TRC’s Plimpton said that air sampling isn’t typically done before a renovation. He explained the sampling work they were doing was to prepare for the upcoming renovation. “It’s a tool you’d use during asbestos removal. We’re trying to identify the caulking products that have the PCBs in it so we can identify those materials and the areas where they are and the controls that will be needed in order to safely remove them. Air sampling protocol just isn’t applicable to the building material investigation to facilitate a renovation.”
Lowthert challenged Plimpton that the school had been advised to do air testing in prior reports, and Plimpton replied that his firm was not requested to do air testing. Lowthert said, “That’s what concerns me, it seems that was a very limited standpoint.”
To which Plimpton replied, “No, the investigation of the caulking was very thorough to support this renovation project.” and he added that, “all of the caulkings that will be impacted by the renovation will be managed under the remediation.”
There were lots of questions about safety and how the practices and methods used by the construction crews would impact the children in the school, especially when construction was happening during hours children would be present.
Among the reassurances given by the abatement and construction professionals:
- Air samples would be regularly checked during abatement; the contractor is required to run air samples to protect any workers on the job; and TRC also does air sampling in work areas, and outside as well, on a daily basis.
- Abatement will not happen when there are students on the campus.
- While problems on work sites are rare, it can happen. When it has TRC has stopped it.
- As much as possible, abatement work is going to be done when children (and faculty) are not on campus at all–summer, school vacation periods, weekends, etc. If any work needs to be done when children are on the campus, a specific plan with special protocols has to go to the CT Dept. of Health. If that happens, the community will be advised.
- Construction work will not happen on areas until abatement work has been completed on those areas.
- When a question was raised about the chance of air pollution from demolition (dust, etc.) affecting children with allergies or asthma, Douyard said contractors will be taking steps to during demolition and construction to contain and limit dust.
- Background checks will be conducted on workers: every worker will submit license, and criminal background checks will be performed. Workers will wear badges; without a badge, they’re not allowed on project. The BoE will make the final determination if someone is allowed to work on site. There will be different numbers of people for different phases: In summer there may be 250 people, but at other times, the most you’d see when school is in session is 60-70 people.
- Staging areas will be behind fences to the northwest corner where the current trailer/office is located, and current traffic circulation patterns for parking, bus dropoff and car pickup lines will not be disrupted.
- There are hard barriers between construction areas and school areas, so that there is no chance for children to enter the construction areas, nor can construction workers access the school interior.
- Contractors will not be able to park in school parking areas; they will park in the staging areas behind the school.
One parent wondered why abatement and construction couldn’t be delayed until summer, and said that hearing “we’re going to be careful, everything will be fine,” wasn’t reassuring. “Thirty years back we thought asbestos was okay; 70 years ago we thought lead was okay. Today we think 50 ppm is okay, but thirty years from now we don’t want to be disastrously wrong about these things.
Raised Voices, Continued Conflict and Uncomfortable Moments
In addition to specific questions related to the construction project there were others more related to ongoing issues, and at times the tone of the meeting took an adversarial, heated turn.
There were audience members who have long been critical of school officials and the current renovation plan present at the meeting. At times they asked questions that seemed to be directed more toward suggesting the school had been badly maintained rather than asking specific questions about how the renovation would proceed.
“A maintenance plan, had we had one, would have taken care of removing these elements,” said one.
Others seemed critical of how the site plan and project schedule had been developed, suggesting that construction start later or be spread over summers rather than disrupt school months. Others still brought up the question of whether the possibility of building a new school on a different location would have been a better choice.
Sensible Wilton members and their supporters were present, and not surprisingly focused on questions surrounding funding. Their attorney Simon Reiff (who is also a Wilton parent) questioned why the builders planned to do work in the winter months, given that it would likely be very expensive to try to break frozen ground. “Is there anywhere in the budget how much more it’s going to cost as a result of doing addition work in the winter, versus the warm months?”
Turner officials said that they’d built time into the schedule knowing that winter weather conditions might occur, that construction goes on year round and that there are measures they can take to continue to work even in the winter. Reiff said that such measures could add significant cost that could be avoided if done at a more seasonable time.
Questions arose around whether the school was up to date on an air quality test. During the attempt by school board member Glenn Hemmerle to answer it (“A thorough test was done throughout in 2014. Those results are published. We were fine. Nothing significant whatsoever to cause us to think we had a problem.”) he said that baseline testing would be done. When one parent who had asked earlier questions about PCBs continued to do so, principal Cheryl Jensen-Gerner interrupted to say, “We can’t have private conversations,” at which several members of the audience loudly objected, saying the woman’s questions were valid. Jensen-Gerner said that other people needed a chance to ask questions too. Again, the audience complained, saying they felt her questions were valid. She asked again, “PCBs in the air were not tested for in 2014.”
TRC’s Arienti said that there were “very sparse” locations throughout the site where PCBs were found in the soil substrate, only 5-6 locations at minimal (1-10 ppm) levels. “Only 5-6 findings, very minimal, in the soil substrate, with no impact on windows or doors. There is verification we still have to do after removing the caulk around the windows to verify our findings during inspection that it’s been cleaned. During the oversight we’ll do more testing to verify that it has all been cleaned up.”
One member of the audience addressed the school officials, saying that there was “distrust” of the administration. “One of the reasons is that the Tools for Schools program was discontinued for a long time. When it was reinstituted, the parent who was chosen to participate wasn’t a parent-chosen parent member, it was an administration-chosen parent. It perpetuates the mistrust. Would the administration be willing to have a parent chosen by the parents?”
To which Smith said, “Absolutely. The interest here is reassuring people and taking the steps to help people feel safe and sure that their kids are safe.”
Alex Ruskewich, one of the leaders of Sensible Wilton, brought up the issue of population decreases and declining enrollment projections. “Who is responsible for evaluating what’s happening in the world and making adjustments to the plans, and not building the school that’s significantly larger than we need? We’re going to have empty classrooms, here and at other schools.”
Building committee member Karen Birck said the Board of Selectmen have not directed anyone to reevaluate the plans, and that the building will need to serve the community until 2047. “We were instructed to build flexibility in it to accommodate increases and decreases over the next few decades.”
Reiff pressed Birck on whether the building committee had ever made a recommendation to the Board of Selectmen regarding declining enrollment, about modifying the proposed plan.
At this and at several other points, school officials tried to remind audience members that those issues and similar ones had been discussed, planned, voted on and moved on, and that the purpose of Wednesday evening’s forum was to discuss details and concerns about how construction and abatement had been long-planned to proceed. “The purpose of tonight is to answer questions about construction that’s coming up; it’s really not to rehash decisions that have already been made and are in the process of being implemented.”
Reiff continued to press his point: “Is there a reason the building committee is refusing to discuss declining enrollment?”
Smith stood up and replied. “In the short term there is an enrollment decline. At the tail end of that 8-year horizon, enrollment turns again. Alex, we’ve talked about this quite a bit. We look at our enrollment numbers very carefully. This project was discussed, and we’re going to continue to look at it. This building has to last for the next few decades, 2047…”
Ruskewich interjected, “Who knows what’s going to happen three decades from now?”
“My point exactly, Alex,” Smith replied.
Reiff continued to question why enrollments were not being discussed, when another parent in the audience echoed what the building committee’s Birck said: “As a parent concerned about the construction phase, we’ve come here to talk about what’s going to happen, your concern may be for a different forum. It was not discussed in the email that was sent to us.”
Jensen-Gerner reiterated the point about the purpose of Wednesday’s meeting: “Our forum tonight is not to rehash whether we’re doing the project or not. You can do that somewhere else, somehow else. This is for people to ask question for what we currently have in mind. So that these people can ask these questions, we can’t have the same people asking the same questions and not getting the answers they want.”
Tensions were clearly on display toward the end of the meeting when a dispute arose between Stephen Hudspeth, a local columnist who has been critical of Sensible Wilton, and Ruskewich. Hudspeth began commenting about some of the issues, stating that, “enrollment projections are only that, projections and not certainties.” Seated only two seats away from Ruskewich, the two disagreed loudly, and other members of the group seated with Sensible Wilton tried to interrupt Hudspeth, saying “How much does Turner [Construction] pay you?”
Hudspeth forcefully responded, “I happen to be a citizen who cares a lot about our children. I want them to be protected. If I didn’t think these people were on the line about air quality, I’d be standing right next to you now, but I know they are. They’re state inspectors. This place is going to be so covered with state inspectors you’re not going to be able to move. Have a little faith in the process.”
Lowthert interjected from across the gym: “Parents are worried about the cost to their children and their children’s health. I’m concerned about the lack of transparency and the health of the children. When I see that this town has spent $10,000 paying an attorney to write the contract with TRC and selecting TRC you have to wonder why you need to have an attorney pick TRC.” When she starting making comments that seemed critical of TRC, the building officials tried to direct questioning elsewhere.
“Give her a fair shot,” one voice called out.
“Excuse me?” Jensen-Gerner said. “She has had many fair shots. Every forum expects question, answer, question, answer. You get called on by a moderator. They don’t expect a back-and-forth. We’re going to have one more question and we’re going to wrap up for the night.”
The last question turned back to a construction-related question: “What happens if something unexpected happens, say asbestos is in a spot where you didn’t expect to have asbestos, what are emergency measures put in place, are you going to call the parents to come pick up their children?”
To which Douyard explained, “We may find asbestos that we don’t know. The contractors are very good about spotting it. Everybody knows they don’t touch it. There are rules and regulations about where and when it can be removed, how much can be removed and all of that would go through TRC or the CT Dept. of Health. We leave it there, wait for a Saturday or a holiday and take it out under the watch of a hygienist and then we move on.”