A local parent questioned the impact contaminated soil at New Westminster Secondary School could have on the health of her son, but a local environmental geoscientist said it likely doesn't pose a threat to the health of students and staff.
Wendy Harris penned a letter last month to the provincial health and environment ministers and the local fire chief outlining her concerns about contaminated soil on the high school and Mercer Stadium sites.
"As a parent, I should have the right to understand what kind of dangers (there are)," Harris said during an interview with The Record last week.
Harris' concerns arose after she read a 2008 district-commissioned report from the consulting company Golder Associates Ltd. The report stated there was methane in the north central area of the site - which Harris said is a portion of the Massey wing where her son's classroom is - and near the skateboard park.
The methane findings concerned Harris, who questioned the possibility of methane explosions and how other contaminants found in the soil could be affecting the health and safety of students and staff.
Environmental geoscientist Patrick Johnstone reviewed the same draft report and wasn't alarmed by what he read.
"I have to say for a site with that history, I'm not all that worried about it," he told The Record Monday. "I would not be worried about explosions or exposure to toxins from what I've seen here."
Johnstone said methane is common in many areas, particularly in boggy soil.
"As far as human health, the risk is zero. Methane comes out of the leaf piles in your front yard," Johnstone said. "Normal organic rotting creates methane."
In her letter, Harris wrote, "Strong methane odours have been detected by several people (including staff) in the school, . light to medium methane odours have been detected in the field adjacent to the school ."
But Johnstone said methane is an odourless gas, and suggested that the smell maybe related to a gas leak or another issue.
Summing up the Golder draft report, Johnstone said: "There are contaminants identified in the ground. The site is deemed a low-risk site, and that's a meaningful term. Low-risk, under the contaminated sites regulation, means that the contaminants are not mobile. It means if there are contaminants in the ground, it's not mobile, it's not going somewhere."
Low-risk also means that the concentrations of the contaminants are low enough that they don't pose a current human health risk, Johnstone added.
When told about the environmental geoscientist's assessment, Harris said she was relieved.
"That's good," she said. Harris is a director with the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils and has long been researching the storied history of the high school site, which includes an old cemetery that was never decommissioned. Roughly 6,000 people are believed to be buried on the site.
In her letter, Harris also noted the deteriorating condition of the high school and said it is "infested with rats."
Harris questioned the safety of having fireworks set off at the site, which the school did this year for its homecoming in September.
For well over a decade, the school district has been attempting to rebuild a new high school on the site. The cemetery and soil conditions have been stumbling blocks for the long-overdue project.
The district and the Ministry of Education are moving forward to build a new middle school and a replacement elementary school. The district is expected to announce the developer for those projects this month, said Jim Alkins, the schools' project manager.
Alkins also said the soil conditions don't pose a threat to the healthy and safety of students and staffers, adding that the Golder engineers who undertook the report "wouldn't allow an unsafe situation to continue without addressing it." He also said Golder wrote a letter to the Ministry of Environment saying "there's no risk."
Vincent C. Hanemayer, a senior contaminated sites officer, responded to Harris' letter on behalf of the province on Tuesday afternoon.
His letter stated that the Golder investigations identified two areas of environmental concern on the site having methane readings above the lower explosive limit.
"Golder Associates Ltd. classified the fill to be of relatively shallow thickness, to contain low organic content and not new (more than eight years old)," he wrote. "Therefore, they concluded that the risk of an explosion by recreational activities (including fireworks) conducted on the field (adjacent to Mercer Field and the skate park) is low. "
But Golder did indicate that below-ground structures, such as manholes or poorly ventilated spaces, should they exist, could potentially be a risk and a monitoring program of such structures would be required, Hanemayer noted.
"The local fire marshal and municipality should be reminded of this issue," he wrote.
With regard to other contaminants, a draft preliminary risk assessment was conducted for areas of environmental concern and risks were found to be acceptable for all contaminants except a hydrocarbon - which is found in coal - near the skateboard park.
"The risk estimate for this contaminant was based on a single sample containing trace charcoal. Further sampling in this area is proposed and (is) expected to provide a better assessment of exposure," he wrote. "At this point, it is expected that risks are manageable."
Hanemayer was unable to comment on building materials or vermin infestations at the site.