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Board decides to keep school near Brookhaven landfill open

Glenn Neuschwender, president of Enviroscience Consultants of Ronkonkoma,

Glenn Neuschwender, president of Enviroscience Consultants of Ronkonkoma, delivers a report on environmental conditions at Frank P. Long Intermediate School in Bellport on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017. Credit: John Roca

The Frank P. Long Intermediate School in Bellport will remain open, amid complaints about sickening odors at the school from parents and teachers who have blamed a nearby town landfill, the South Country school board president said after a contentious public hearing Wednesday night.

“The consensus has shown us, right now, that we have no definitive reason to close Frank P. Long at this point,” board president Cheryl Felice said after 11 p.m., following a nearly four-hour public hearing.

Felice said the board would recommend “no further action be taken at this point” and adjourned the meeting.

Earlier in the night, Glenn Neuschwender, president of Enviroscience Consultants of Ronkonkoma, the district’s environmental consultant, told the board his review of the school found that test samples were “free of elevated levels of contaminants” and results were “similar to background levels compared to similar schools.”

Despite his report, parents and teachers urged the school board to close the building that serves nearly 700 fourth- and fifth-graders and more than 100 faculty members.

Community members have long been concerned about environmental hazards emanating from the Brookhaven Town Landfill, a 192-acre site about a mile away on Horseblock Road in Yaphank. The town has capped off much of the landfill and expects to close it in about eight years.

“The illnesses our teachers are experiencing are real, they are serious, and it’s a slap in the face to every dedicated South Country teacher to insinuate otherwise,” said Trish Gallina, second vice president with the Bellport Teachers Association who is a teacher in the building.

Amy Bender, parent of an incoming fifth-grader, Natalie, 10, said her daughter will not be attending Frank P. Long when school starts on Sept. 5. She said her daughter began experiencing respiratory issues, chronic coughing, dizziness, headaches, and scratches a short time after she began attending the school. “I feel that it has become the parents’ burden of proof, and I feel like I’ve been on trial all summer to prove that this school . . . has made my daughter sick, and I think that’s very unfair.”

At recent school board meetings, Neuschwender has delivered testing results conducted at the school. Reviewed were asbestos, mold, heavy metals, radon, volatile organic compounds, total particulate, hydrogen sulfide, heavy metals, and groundwater samples.

Felice said after the meeting that there would be further discussion of the issue.

Superintendent Joseph Giani identified three issues requiring corrective action in a July letter to residents: a damaged asbestos pipe insulation in a boiler room, mold in one classroom, and elevated pesticide compound in the school’s basement.

The board had outlined and projected costs for a number of options, including to lease the shuttered Tecumseh Elementary School in the Sachem school district. South Country officials toured the facility last week, Felice said.

The district made public two letters, dated Aug. 10, from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Health.

Carrie Meek Gallagher, regional director of the DEC, wrote in one letter to Giani that a review of VOC data could only show evidence that the hazards were related to “vehicular traffic.” Additionally, the report discussed benzene, a colorless, flammable liquid that is associated with short and long-term health effects, including cancer. The report said the “predominant” source of benzene in the community stemmed from motor vehicles.

“The widespread claim that the Department determined the Landfill to be the predominant source of benzene found in the neighborhood is incorrect,” Gallagher wrote.

Elizabeth Lewis-Michl, director of the Division of Environmental Health Assessment with the state Department of Health, wrote in a letter to the Suffolk County health commissioner that “in general, the results of the indoor air samples were unremarkable.”

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