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McPolin preschool playground closed after contaminated soil work raises concerns

McPolin.jpg
KPCW
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The McPolin Elementary preschool playground area on July 6.

The playground at McPolin Elementary’s preschool closed October 20 due to staff concerns over soil being excavated nearby. Environmental agencies say they didn’t find out about the work until it was already done.

The Park City School District is expanding McPolin Elementary School. It started excavating soil in late June, and moved the dirt behind Treasure Mountain Junior High.

Lead is widespread in Park City soil, a remnant of the city’s mining days. Ingesting lead can be dangerous to children’s developing brains. Because of that, the Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Environmental Quality and the school district signed what’s called an environmental covenant in 2017 to govern work at schools on Kearns Boulevard.

The covenant lays out how to handle dirt before, during and after construction. It does not require oversight by state or federal agencies.

This fall, McPolin employees became worried about construction dust where preschoolers play. They started keeping children inside at recess weeks before the district closed the playground.

The school district’s website initially said the Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, reviewed and supervised the district’s plans and work throughout the project.

But the DEQ says it wasn’t aware of the project until well after the dirt was moved. The district later published what it called an “update” explaining the DEQ had jurisdiction, not supervision, over the project.

The update also corrected the project timeline. It first said the work occurred in late July when no students were present, but the work actually began a month earlier, while summer school was in session at Treasure Mountain Junior High.

Tom Daniels is site assessment and environmental response section manager for the DEQ. He told KPCW he first heard about the work when the district’s contractor, J.D. Simmons, called him September 15th asking for guidance about handling the dirt pile behind Treasure.

Daniels inspected the site the next day and is now helping oversee the rest of the work.

He said lead is typically dangerous when ingested through eating or drinking; trace amounts in airborne dust aren’t considered risky. But he said he understands teachers’ concern.

“Any children between the ages of three and five are what we call our target receptor; their brains and their bodies are still developing and they also are more likely to engage in behavior that increases their the amount of exposure," he said. "They play in the dirt. They're more likely to eat the dirt. They're also closer to the ground.”

Also in September, a soil testing company tested six samples of soil from the dirt pile at Treasure. Four came back with lead levels above normal, though Daniels said that still doesn’t pose a risk if it’s handled properly and capped with clean soil.

After the playground closed, a district spokesperson said the work has consistently followed the rules regulating contaminated soil. But Daniels said the work started before the district realized it was working in a contaminated area.

“I originally talked to them about best management practices on September 16," he said. "And we have been in ongoing discussions with them on how best to manage those. They didn't find out that they were part of the environmental covenant until after they had already started doing work out there. It’s currently capped and we're working with the district on the management practices for the stockpiled soil.”

Another DEQ spokesperson said there’s no way to verify what the district said it did over the summer. A school employee told KPCW that fences and other containment measures at the Treasure Mountain dirt pile only began in mid-October.

Daniels also said the school district assured him it was working closely with Park City Municipal on the project and following city ordinances.

But city spokesperson Clayton Scrivner said city staff first discussed the project with the district in August, after most of the excavation was done. He said the city requested that meeting to tell the district not to move any more soil because it hadn’t yet submitted required paperwork.

The school district’s most recent update says that pre-construction work at McPolin didn’t penetrate the protective cap that covers the contaminated soil.

Park City Municipal has jurisdiction over construction at McPolin. Scrivner said staff can’t verify the district’s account of its excavation work after the fact.

The EPA’s regional office told KPCW it was not aware of the project during the summer either. The EPA is now working with the DEQ to review the district’s work to “determine what corrective measures may be needed.”

The EPA did not specify whether the district could face any consequences if the covenant rules weren’t followed.

Click here to see the 2017 environmental covenant.

Corrected: November 3, 2022 at 10:52 AM MDT
An earlier version of this report said the DEQ is contracted to help PCSD oversee soil work. The DEQ is now helping but isn't under contract.
Michelle, who joined KPCW in 2021, arrived in Utah in 2018 by way of Massachusetts, where the skiing was icy and the mosquitoes formidable. A former daily newspaper reporter and editor (at the Visalia Times-Delta in CA) and columnist (at The Cohasset Mariner in MA), Michelle has been a writer and editor for decades. She holds a journalism degree from CSU Fresno and has worked as a journalist, freelance writer and web content creator, reporting extensively on education and youth along with general assignment and breaking news.