NGA site debris moved next to a St. Louis school, air monitoring didn’t follow
Demolition and excavation work for a new federal intelligence agency headquarters in north St. Louis received environmental scrutiny and regulation that officials said is “above and beyond” what’s required.
When some of that demolition material from the site of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s West headquarters was moved across the street, and next to a public school, little if any monitoring occurred. Parents and staff at the Gateway school complex on North Jefferson Avenue, point to the 30-foot piles of rubble they say brought high levels of dust and caused breathing problems and other ailments at the school over several months.
Read part 1 of the investigation: 'Dust bowl' created by rubble piles blamed for sickening kids, teachers.
Many questioned why the debris was piled next to the school in the city’s Carr Square neighborhood.
“I think it was just totally wrong, because of the school. If the school wasn’t there, that would have been fine,” said Marilyn, a grandmother of several children at Gateway, who asked that only her first name be used to protect her grandchildren’s privacy.
She said in December her grandchildren started coming home from school with headaches on a regular basis. That was something she said they had not experienced in previous years at the school.
St. Louis Public Radio interviewed more than a dozen parents and staff members at Gateway and heard similar stories of sudden health and breathing issues. The Gateway complex has more than 1,000 students. Only a chain link fence separates it from the piles of rubble.
Treatment for asthma by the school nurse increased, according to interviews and documents obtained through open records requests. Since the start of the school year last August, there were 359 asthma complaints to the elementary school nurse through early April, according to the St. Louis Public Schools district.
What’s regulated where
Making way for the federal NGA facility was closely monitored by the state of Missouri. Before any razing of homes, businesses and churches occurred, both soil and structures were tested by environmental consultants for lead, asbestos and other hazards.
And then, as the buildings came down and the ground was leveled out, water trucks sprayed down rubble and air monitors kept tabs on dust, according to Carey Bridges, the deputy director of the Department of Natural Resources’ environmental quality division.
“So that’s something that’s above and beyond what we normally see,” Bridges said.
DNR provided a summary of air monitoring around the 100-acre NGA construction site through an open records request. Dust levels were elevation but within federal standards on at least one day in September and two days in February, according to notes, and additional measures were promptly taken to keep dust down.
When some of that debris was moved south, across Cass Avenue to the former Pruitt-Igoe site, there was no soil testing or air monitoring.
Six staff members of the Gateway schools who talked to St. Louis Public Radio on condition of anonymity said they often left school to find their cars blanketed in dirt from the nearby work as the piles grew larger in late fall and early winter.
The lack of monitoring did not violate any state regulations, according to Bridges. “I’m not aware of any requirements once [demolition material] leaves” a brownfield site, she said.
Yet it is against state environmental regulations for dust from a construction site to end up in neighboring properties. That can be a difficult rule to enforce, a DNR air quality official said, and state inspectors did not visit the Pruitt-Igoe site to check for violations.
Inspectors from the St. Louis Department of Health did go to the site in February, according to spokesman Harold Bailey, but it had recently rained and they reported no issues with dust.
High levels of dirt and dust blowing in the air, regardless of contamination, can cause respiratory problems and other symptoms, including headaches, according to air quality experts.
“Breathing in particles can irritate the airway all by themselves,” said John Kraemer, a professor of environmental science and CEO of the Institute for Environmental Health Assessment and Patient Centered Outcomes at Southeast Missouri State University.
Until recently the land next to Gateway school was basically an urban forest, left vacant for decades after the federal Pruitt-Igoe housing development was demolished. The land is owned by developer Paul McKee, who bought it from the city for $1 million in 2016.
While the city of St. Louis contracted with Kolb Grading for part of the demolition on the NGA site, it was Kolb who reached a deal with McKee to store the debris on private land next to Gateway.
“We were not aware of it, but we did not have a problem with it,” Otis Williams, director of St. Louis Development Corporation, which is overseeing the city’s site preparation for the NGA.
Yet the DNR’s Bridges paints a different picture of the city’s involvement.
“The SLDC made the proposal to the MoDNR by phone, and a verbal statement was provided by MoDNR stating no objection to the use of Pruitt Igoe,” Bridges wrote in an email clarifying the timeline.
According to both city and state officials, the rubble was tested and is clean of contamination.
Using the Pruitt-Igoe site to store and later grind down the concrete and brick, known as “clean fill,” for the NGA construction cut down dump truck traffic to haul it farther away, Williams said, and saves the project money because the material will be reused.
“I think it’s smart by the contractor because, at some point, he would have to be hauling that material back in,” Williams. “And so it is not something that we would have objected to.”
St. Louis Public Radio spoke with McKee by phone, but he refused to be either recorded or quoted. Several calls to Jeff Kolb, vice president of Kolb Grading, were not returned.
Kolb Grading officials, however, did meet with school staff and parents in April. After several complaints, Kolb agreed to halt any further work until the end of the school year and to take additional dust suppression measures, according to several people who attended that meeting.
The St. Louis Development Corporation will follow through on complaints and make sure there are no further problems, according to Williams.
“At this point what we have found is there is not any issue or any problem that would cause harm to the public,” he said.
‘Does money matter more than people?’
Work near the school has been suspended until summer break begins May 24 and health problems have decreased. But as rubble piles still tower over the school’s parking lot, “all the wind has to do is blow,” said Kraemer, the air quality inspector at Southeast Missouri State University.
Marilyn, the grandmother of children at Gateway, sat on a park bench near the school on a recent morning. She lived in one of the Pruitt-Igoe towers as a child and at first was happy to see the overgrown trees and weeds coming down, but then the rocks piled up and her grandchildren started getting ill.
“Do they have to do it here? Why here?” she asked after dropping the children off at the school. “Or do money matter more than people? Especially children. They trust us to take care of them, to look out for them,” she said. “And we’re trying to trust Paul McKee to look out for us? I don’t think so.”
Work has been suspended until summer break begins May 24. Health issues in the school have decreased during the hiatus. The contractor plans to grind down the rubble this summer and transport it back to the NGA site for temporary roads and fill. Summer school at Gateway begins June 4.
McKee has said he plans to build a health care center where the rubble piles now loom high. Before that work begins, the soil will need to be tested for contamination.
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