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School Climate & Safety

Quincy, Mass., Drops Plans for School On Dump Site

By Catherine Gewertz — December 06, 2000 2 min read

The city of Quincy, Mass., has dropped a plan to build a high school on a defunct toxic dump, bowing to mounting opposition from community members worried about health risks to future students.

With the $100 million project nearing its final approval phase, Mayor James A. Sheets announced last week that it would be halted after three years of planning. He said he stood by the project as the city’s best choice, but did not believe he could instill sufficient public faith in it.

“Once the fear is generated, whether it’s real or perceived, it’s real,” Mr. Sheets told The Boston Globe. “I’m not going to have moms and dads out there saying, ‘I don’t want to send my son or daughter to that high school because it’s not safe.’ ”

The developments in Quincy, a Boston suburb with an 8,900-student public school system, echoed a debacle in Los Angeles, where the school district spent $200 million to plan and partially complete a high school complex on an old oil field before abandoning it earlier this year in the face of intense opposition. (“L.A.'s Belmont Project Halted by School Board,” Feb. 2, 2000.)

The plan in Massachusetts would have constructed a school, an access road, and adjoining fields to replace the old, physically ailing Quincy High School, which serves Quincy’s central-city area. The Quincy school committee had approved the plan, and the state education department had already committed to reimburse the city for 90 percent of the cost. The City Council was to have considered a construction bond for the project this week.

An environmental firm hired by the city examined the site and confirmed that small concentrations of contaminants were present. The firm promised it could rehabilitate the site by excavating the soil from where the high school would be, covering the area with a liner, and topping it with a thick layer of clean soil. The excavated soil would be deposited elsewhere on the 24-acre parcel.

Growing Opposition

Key city and school leaders supported the decision to proceed. But opposition grew. Parents told local newspapers their children wouldn’t be safe at the school. One even said she would move out of town rather than send her four children there. They delivered a petition to Mr. Sheets bearing the signatures of 1,400 opponents of the construction.

School committee member William J. Phelan combed through legal and historical documents to assemble a picture of the past use of the site, where a shipyard dumped asbestos, lead, and other substances from the 1940s to the early 1960s. Mr. Phelan claimed that the volume of toxins far exceeded previous estimates.

Then, on Nov. 28, a Boston-based advocacy group placed the site on its “Dirty Dozen” list of what it viewed as the state’s top environmental health threats. The same day, Mayor Sheets called an end to the project.

Mr. Sheets, a Democrat, said he would urge the school committee to find another site for the school.

Democratic state Sen. Mark Morrissey, who opposed the plan, welcomed the news.

“Even if you believe the engineers, you were never going to get over the emotional hurdle of people not wanting to send their kids to the site,” he said. “If the engineers are wrong, you won’t know until 20 or 30 years from now.”

But Kerry Tull, the project manager for the proposed high school, lamented what he called the triumph of emotion over science.

A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 2000 edition of Education Week as Quincy, Mass., Drops Plans for School On Dump Site

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