Danger Below?

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Although they worry about the long-term effects of the toxic waste in the water, a small Cape Cod, Mass., town has yet to find the resources to move the schools.

Bourne, Mass.

As she does many school day mornings, Melinda McAra stands in her cluttered kitchen stuffing her daughter's backpack with the essentials: notebook, pencils, money, lunch--and plenty of bottled water.

The mother of two says the extra drinking water--from a local store or the home tap--is necessary because she is afraid the water in her daughter's school may be unsafe. She is not alone.

Eleven-year-old Lindy McAra and 850 other elementary school students in this Cape Cod town have the dubious distinction of being bused onto a Superfund site to go to school.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates there are 67 other Superfund locations--federally identified toxic-waste sites--around the country that are within a mile of a school and that still need to be completely cleaned up. ("EPA Sweep Includes Sites Near Schools," in This Week's News.)

"I think I'm going to regret this 20 years from now, and that's a fear I'd rather not live with," says McAra as she watches Lindy's yellow school bus begin its journey past marshes and horse stables and cranberry bogs toward the military base where her school and two others are located.

The night before, at a gathering of local parents, McAra had complained: "It's a sad state to say to my kid, 'Oh, have fun on the Superfund site today.'"

In recent years, parents have been bombarded with warnings about the presence of gangs, guns, knives, and illegal drugs in schools.

But here in Bourne, Mass., parents worry about the water.They fret about the air and wonder what hazardous chemicals might be lurking in the dirt.

Beneath this fashionable slice of Cape Cod, the summer playground of presidents and celebrities, lies an underground stream of toxic chemicals meandering through the sandy soil.

Before this seaside New England community became a tourist mecca, part of it was used by the U.S. military for bombing training, mock amphibious-landing assaults, and target practice. In the 1940s, the area was a major mobilization point for troops going to war overseas.

But by 1989, the EPA had designated a portion of this coastal land a Superfund site after discovering that decades of fuel spills and toxic-waste dumping at the military compound here had seriously polluted the aquifer that serves as the region's sole water supply. Environmental engineers have since rerouted drinking supplies away from tainted portions of the aquifer.

An Air Force official says there is no danger to children, but some would prefer to relocate the schools to be sure.

Since the 1960s, the town of Bourne has continuously operated three schools on the Massachusetts Military Reservation, a 22,000-acre property that is home to Coast Guard and Air and Army National Guard bases. One of the schools serves grades K-2, and the other two serve grades 5-7. Bourne has two other elementary schools and a high school serving grades 8-12 that are not on the military facility or within the Superfund site.

Today, there is no evidence that the water that is being piped into the schools on the military reservation is contaminated. In fact, according to Mike Minior, a senior environmental engineer with the Air Force Center for Environmental Excellence, or afcee: "There's no risk and no threat to children."

But the Superfund site has seeped into the community psyche. One local tale--dismissed as false by military and school district officials--has it that two boys drowned here one winter because chemicals in a pond they were walking on kept the pond from freezing completely.

More substantively, some parents and teachers in the 2,500-student district point to the fact that the incidence of cancer among adults is unusually high here. These parents and school officials want new schools for Bourne's children. But a mix of federal and local funding decisions keeps putting roadblocks in their path.

In the postwar 1950s and 1960s, the military built four schools in a tight cluster on a grassy hill on the base property to accommodate the children of the more than 10,000 military personnel stationed here. In 1972, the military sold the schools, which were already run by the Bourne district, to the town for $1 each.

When the federal government began scaling down the compound's operations in the early 1980s, one of the schools--the Campbell School--was closed. In 1995, when the elementary schools' enrollment rose, plans were made for Campbell to be renovated and reopened to accommodate about 250 students in grades 3 and 4.

But that never happened.

On a recent sunny afternoon, Kevin Huelsman strides across a field of purple flowers to an abandoned building ringed by overgrown weeds.

The incidence of cancer among adults is unusually high in the town that houses this 2,500-student district.

Just a few hundred feet from Stone Middle School, where Huelsman is principal, the Campbell School today sits vacant. It had to be closed in 1995, two days before it was set to reopen, after soil testing revealed it had been built on a landfill that contained high levels of dieldrin, a pesticide and probable human carcinogen.

The forested plot was used as a firearms storage area during World War II, when it was customary to use pesticides to protect wooden ammunition containers from insects. Besides the polluted soil, further testing showed that caulking and ceiling materials inside the school building contained polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a probable human carcinogen.

Even though the Campbell School is boarded up now, Huelsman and other school officials worry that the toxic dirt could easily blow their way.

"There's always a breeze out here," says Huelsman, watching students playing soccer on a field a few hundred feet from Campbell. "We've got contaminated soil, and if it's ingested, it's a problem," Huelsman says.

Mary C. Fuller, the principal at the neighboring Lyle Middle School and a 35-year veteran of the district, worked at Campbell for many years. While the spacious lawns and banks of trees make this area a pleasant location for a cluster of schools, it may not have been the most prudent place to put them, says Fuller, who survived a bout with cervical cancer 20 years ago. She is not sure what caused her illness.

Fuller keeps an aerial map of the military base from the 1940s behind a bookshelf in her cozy office, which she has adorned with children's art and photographs of her blond grandchildren. The plan is dotted with the locations of long-dormant ammunition dumps and artillery ranges near the current settings of the schools.

The map brings to mind Love Canal, says Fuller, referring to the notorious environmental disaster in Niagara Falls, N.Y., in 1978, when many people became sick after being exposed to toxic chemical waste that had been buried in a ravine. Though she doubts anyone on the base intended to cause harm, Fuller says, "people here just dumped waste by the bucket."

In a subsequent interview, she said, "No one would have built a school here had they known."

Military reservation officials acknowledge that for two decades after World War II, the military routinely dumped airplane fuel, heavy metals from ammunition ranges, and other industrial pollutants into landfills across the base. Over the years, coaxed by the rain and gravity, the contaminated liquid seeped hundreds of feet down into the aquifer, according to the EPA.

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