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Park City School District working with state to address soil code violations

At the back of the Treasure Mountain Junior High, large piles of excavated dirt from construction work are covered in snow. The piles are subject to an assortment of state, municipal and multi-agency regulations due to dirt in the area being contaminated from 19th century mining work.
At the back of the Treasure Mountain Junior High, large piles of excavated dirt are covered in snow. The piles are subject to an assortment of multi-agency regulations due to dirt in the area being contaminated from 19th century mining work.

The Park City School District is storing contaminated soil in piles the state says violate environmental codes. The district is working with state agencies on what to do next.

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, sent the school district two letters in December. One sent Dec. 22 said Utah environmental code requires special permission to store piles of dirt like those behind Treasure Mountain Junior High longer than 90 days. The piles have been there in some form since 2017.

That letter came after another sent earlier in December. In the first one, the DEQ advised the district it was violating city code. The DEQ wrote, “This soil was placed at the middle school in violation of the Park City Soils Ordinance…and may contain hazardous waste as defined in the Park City Soils Ordinance.”

In an interview with KPCW, school district Chief Operating Officer Mike Tanner said he believes the first violation notice is a mistake on the DEQ’s part because the soil mentioned is not under city jurisdiction.

The second letter notified the district of state code that governs how waste piles must be managed, and asked the district to schedule a meeting to discuss the “history, details and environmental concerns regarding the excavated piles.”

Tanner said that letter chronicles a construction hiccup, and that such complications tend to arise in large-scale projects like the one currently underway at four school district campuses.

Ashley Summer, spokesperson for the DEQ, disputed Tanner’s characterization, saying the state stands by what it outlined in both letters. She said “it may be routine to store material for short periods of time, but certainly not months or years, and it is not routine to move piles from a construction area to another site. This is not something we see frequently.”

Tanner emphasized that the district prioritizes student safety above all else, with taxpayer expense a close second.   

“We don't have concerns over the safety of those piles being there, they're been mitigated with best management practices, capping, all the soil runoff issues are contained, they’re fenced, they're signed," Tanner said. "And so by DEQ standards that soil storage there is up to their requirements. The real decision is okay, since the soils are there, since they shouldn't be there, according to the DEQ, can we safely keep them there? And if not, then we have to come up with a management plan to move them.”

Moving the dirt piles off site to a repository designated for contaminated soil could cost three to five million dollars, he said. He said a far more affordable alternative would be to keep the soil on site until construction is complete.

At that time, the junior high will close – its students will be divided between Ecker Hill Middle School and Park City High School.

If the community agrees to demolish the junior high campus, the district could put the dirt piles into the giant hole that will remain – with the state’s permission.

Tanner said since receiving the letters from the DEQ, the district has been in frequent talks with state environmental agencies. He said those agencies are giving the district more time to sample the soil. The district will submit soil test results, and the agencies will then decide what happens next.

The district is required to comply not just with city and state codes but also with soil handling guidelines laid out in a 2017 environmental covenant. That’s a contract between the school district and agencies including the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Tanner said no one in the school district or at City Hall knew about the covenant due to personnel turnover after that contract was signed.

“Nobody knew about the covenant," he said. "There's no one trying to circumvent EPA edicts, in fact, you know, we are sticklers on compliance with that stuff if we know that it exists and that was what the problem was. But even if we didn't have that knowledge of the DEQ covenant at the time the construction began, again, it's irrelevant because the soils were handled in accordance with best management practices that were required by both the DEQ and Park City Municipal.”

The covenant was signed in December 2016 by then-superintendent Ember Conley, then-school board president Tania Knauer, Todd Hauber and Lorie Pearce. Hauber served as business administrator for the Park City School District for more than six years after that, until leaving last October. Pearce is still at the district serving as executive assistant to Superintendent Jill Gildea.

Tanner said it could have been an oversight that Hauber didn’t flag the covenant during the yearslong master planning process. Pearce signed it as a notary public and Tanner said she may not have known what was in it.

Hauber now serves as business administrator for the Granite School District. He did not respond to a request for comment for this report.

Tanner said the district hopes to receive a long-term waiver from the state agencies to continue storing the soil where it is, but if the state says no to that, the district will move the soil this summer when school is out.

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