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Environmental firm: No reason to say Northport Middle 'unsafe to occupy'

Superintendent Robert Banzer shut down Northport Middle School

Superintendent Robert Banzer shut down Northport Middle School in January because of environmental concerns. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

The fate of Northport Middle School — closed since January when an environmental firm detected high levels of mercury and benzene — will be up for discussion at a public forum next week, following a comprehensive investigation that concluded there's no reason to render the school “unsafe to occupy.”

The district’s environmental firm, P.W. Grosser Consulting, investigated from December 2019 through March the inside of the school and surrounding grounds to address years of complaints from students, staff and parents regarding odor issues and health concerns.

“PWGC has not identified an environmental concern that renders the school unsafe to occupy,” the firm stated in its findings, released Thursday in a 6,971-page document. “While several items of concern were identified during the investigation, each is addressable and does not require the school to be closed to implement.”

A tentative date for a community forum was set for June 25, though it was not finalized as of Thursday.

"Very pleased that PWGC has completed their extremely comprehensive environmental investigation at the middle school," Superintendent Robert Banzer said in an email Thursday. "I’m reviewing the 7,000-page report as I just received it today along with the community."

In December, students from two classrooms were relocated because of an “indoor air quality issue.” At subsequent school board meetings, some parents called for their children to be removed from the school, while others urged the school to stay open.

The following month, the environmental firm detected elevated levels of mercury in cesspools outside the Middleville Road building, as well as high levels of benzene in two septic tanks.

Banzer then called for the closure through the end of the academic year. He reversed that call in March, saying that the district would consider reopening the building after a review of remediation work.

The firm was expected to release findings from its monthslong investigation in April, but the coronavirus pandemic shutdown postponed that deadline.

Remediation of the areas where benzene and mercury were detected took place from March 9 through April 1, according to an update from the Suffolk County Department of Health Services.

“It has been determined that the cleanup objectives for all reportable contaminants have been met,” wrote Edward Roe, senior public health sanitarian, in a “no further action” letter to Banzer dated June 1. “In addition, all contaminated material has been removed and properly disposed.”

The county health services department “concluded that no further remediation of these structures would be required at this time,” according to an update on its website.

Among the firm’s recommendations is to relocate the current bus depot at the school off-site and to relocate fueling tanks.

There were reported odors in different parts of the building, some of which were addressed and others that weren’t, according to the investigation document.

There was “evidence of rotting organic matter, likely from nearby trees,” that was found on roof drains, according to the document. The firm had the roof drains sanitized in early April and recommended having a roofing contractor inspect the drains to determine if they’re properly sealed. The document stated that there was a reduction or elimination of musty odors in the building after the cleaning.

The firm also detected a “burnt” smell in room N-103, which they determined was caused by a rubbing belt inside a vent.

The investigation could not find the cause for odors in rooms K-74 and K-75, which were recently renovated. “PWGC has eliminated several potential sources of this odor, indicating that the furniture [benches and wood cabinetry] may be the likely source of the odor,” the document stated.

The district also has been under investigation by the state Department of Health's Cancer Surveillance program, which is looking into a “statistically significant” higher rate of leukemia among the Northport High School graduating Class of 2016. The department is "on track for this in-depth analysis to be completed within the 18-month projected time frame proposed in December [2019]," an official said in an email Friday. 

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