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State reviews disease rate in Bellport school near landfill

Dr. Joseph Giani Superintendent and Cheryl A. Felice

Dr. Joseph Giani Superintendent and Cheryl A. Felice during an Aug. 16, 2017 school board hearing on environmental conditions at Frank P. Long Intermediate School, where students and faculty have described sickening odors they say come from the nearby Brookhaven Town Landfill. Credit: John Roca

The state Department of Health is reviewing cancer rates and disease occurrence related to Frank P. Long Intermediate School in Bellport, where teachers and parents have long complained of sickening odors they believe stem from nearby Brookhaven Town landfill.

“This in-depth review is ongoing and requires extensive research and compilation of data. The results of this review will be made available once complete,” Erin Silk, a department spokeswoman, said Thursday.

The South Country school board, after a nearly four-hour meeting Wednesday night, decided that students will go to Frank P. Long when school starts on Sept. 5. Board president Cheryl Felice said there was “no definitive reason” to close the school, which had 675 fourth- and fifth graders and 105 faculty members in the 2016-17 school year.

In an interview Thursday, Felice said that the district would continue to monitor the issue. “We want to ensure that the health and safety of this building is sound and safe for every individual, and we’re committed to seeing that through.”

She said that the Department of Health study is “part of doing their due diligence” and thought the results will “bear out” the conclusion that “the landfill and/or the school is no causing the cancer.”

Dr. James L. Tomarken, the Suffolk County health commissioner, urged state health department officials in a July 25 letter to review “air monitoring data and disease occurrence information including updates on uterine and bladder cancer rates in the community.”

Parents and teachers had urged the board to close the school at Wednesday’s meeting. They have cited smells of ash and rotting garbage they believe emanate from the landfill, about a mile away on Horseblock Road in Yaphank.

Glenn Neuschwender, president of Enviroscience Consultants Inc. of Ronkonkoma, hired by the board to do an environmental review, Wednesday night delivered the results. The findings said the building was “free of elevated levels of contaminants” and noted that test samples were “similar to background levels compared to similar schools.”

“We’re disappointed. We’re nervous about having to go back into the building,” said Trish Gallina, second vice president of the Bellport Teachers Association and a fifth-grade teacher at Frank P. Long.

Neuschwender said Thursday that soil samples would be collected Monday in the school’s basement where officials discovered in one sample a “slightly elevated” level of a compound commonly found in pesticide.

The district had projected costs for other options if they had closed the Long school, including a $1.37 million plan to lease the shuttered Tecumseh Elementary School in Sachem. Officials toured the facility last week, Felice said.

Thomas Schultz, a parent to Lila, 9, said he has asked the district to approve an instructor to home-school her. She experienced frequent headaches shortly after starting at Frank P. Long as a fourth-grader last year, Schultz said.

According to a state education department official, “a parent may remove his/her child from a district school at any time, for any reason,” but the parent must offer the school-age child student a “substantially equivalent” education, whether it occur at a public, private, or home school setting. However, districts can regulate in-district transfers.

Felice and Neuschwender said that testing, on a more limited scale, could occur at the school during different times in the upcoming school year.

According to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the agency has been closely monitoring the Brookhaven landfill and has required the town to “perform an assessment of the site and determine if the landfill was the cause of the odor episodes in the surrounding community. Results showed that odor episodes were associated with the landfill.”

In June, the agency installed technology at two sites in the community to monitor hydrogen sulfide and noted Brookhaven “has engaged an odor remediation expert to address the remaining sources of odors.”

Brookhaven officials said the town has capped about 65 percent of the landfill and is continuing to install gas collection wells. They noted that the landfill is highly regulated by the DEC.

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