School is again shuttered

Fumes lingering despite cleanup

By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / January 23, 2011

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Noxious, lingering fumes have once again forced the closure of the Helen R. Donaghue School in Merrimac — this time indefinitely.

Responding to numerous complaints from students, parents, and staff amid a lengthy and intricate mold and asbestos cleanup project, the town board of health voted on Monday to close the elementary school until further notice. The school was previously shut down for the first full week of January.

Now, under a School Committee-approved relocation plan, Donaghue’s 400 students are being dispersed to other schools in the Pentucket Regional School District, which comprises West Newbury, Merrimac, and Groveland.

Merrimac’s Board of health chairwoman, Eileen Hurley, expects the building to be shuttered for at least three to four weeks, giving officials time to clean and inspect its hallways and rooms, perform air quality tests, and hopefully determine the source of the vexing, seemingly incessant fumes. Believed to have resulted from the ongoing mold and asbestos cleanup, the odors have purportedly caused headaches, stomach aches, stinging eyes, dry throats, and rashes, Hurley said.

When the time comes, board of health approval will be required to reopen the school.

But as of yet, “no one can answer the question of why the odor or irritant doesn’t dissipate,’’ said Hurley.

Various unpleasant fumes have persisted for weeks now, since staff and contract workers began ripping up carpets late last year to rid the building of mold and bacteria discovered last summer. But the solution to one problem led to the discovery of another: Beneath the yanked-up carpets, some tiling was found to contain asbestos, prompting additional remediation by licensed workers to comply with state and federal regulations. Meanwhile, a retiling project has also started, and will continue as the building sits dormant.

Per the regional school district agreement, Merrimac is paying costs for 9,000 square feet of the building, with the district handling 4,000 square feet, according to selectmen chairman Ricky Pinciaro. The district has made use of staff workers, while the town has hired contractors to handle mold removal, asbestos abatement, and retiling. Preliminary estimates are that the town’s share of the costs will be around $100,000, Pinciaro said.

Throughout the various projects, workers have used a medley of eight or nine cleaning and chemical agents and liquid adhesives, Hurley explained. One theory, she said, is that one or more of those chemicals worked into the crevice between the floor and the walls.

But whatever it is, the smell “wafts through the hallways,’’ she said, and simply doesn’t dissipate. And while not everyone is sensitive to it, there have been enough complaints to make it a serious problem.

Still, earlier this month, officials thought they had the issue largely resolved when the school was cleared to reopen on Jan. 10 after being ordered closed from Jan. 3 to Jan. 7 by the board of health.

But after emergency meetings on Jan. 14 and 17, it was ordered shuttered once more.

A relocation plan put into effect on Tuesday has the school’s third-grade classes attending Merrimac’s Dr. Frederick N. Sweetsir School, while its fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade students have been moved to Pentucket Regional High School in West Newbury.

Morning bus schedules remain the same — with students brought to Donaghue, then shuttled to their various temporary classrooms — while afternoon schedules have been tweaked, according to an e-mail sent out to parents.

“The transition of our Donaghue students seems to have gone well,’’ Pentucket Superintendent Paul Livingston said in the e-mail, noting the efforts of teachers and staff in relocating their materials.

By 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, the first day of relocation, “everyone was settled and working hard,’’ he said.

Livingston could not be reached for additional comment by deadline.

Meanwhile, officials are determining how to make up the lost week from the early January closure, whether by adding three to five full days during holidays, February or April vacations, or summer break; building onto early release days; or adding minutes to several consecutive days.

Asbestos is a frequent problem these days, despite having been mostly banned by the Environmental Protection Agency since July 1989.

In Massachusetts, construction, demolition, and renovation activities that will disturb asbestos must meet state and federal environmental and safety rules, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The agency website lists nearly 900 active asbestos projects in private residences, large and small businesses, institutions, colleges, and public buildings across the state.

Local projects are underway at Billerica High School, Greater Lowell Technical High School, Saugus High School, Phillips Academy in Andover, and a handful of schools in Lynn, according to the DEP website, as well as several other schools across the region.

Likewise, Gordon College in Wenham, Salem State University, UMass Lowell, Tufts University, and Northern Essex Community College’s Haverhill campus have projects listed in the DEP database, as do many area hospitals and businesses.