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Our View: Take steps to keep school safe

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014 11:40 p.m. CDT

Parents, teachers and neighbors have a right to be outraged about the rancid odor from the Waste Management landfill that made people sick at Cortland Elementary School on Tuesday.

The landfill is less than a mile from the school, and concerns about the air quality are not new. People expressed concerns about the school site when District 428 built and opened it five years ago.

They arose again in 2010, when an air quality test showed hydrogen sulfide in the air outside and inside the school (it was later found to be at safe levels.)

Concerns about air quality have been consistently part of the argument about the wisdom of expanding the landfill by 349 acres to accept more than 1,800 tons of trash daily, six times more than it does now.

Again and again, parents and community members have been assured by experts and studies that the children and staff at the school are safe. The message consistently has been that air quality is within acceptable levels and monitoring devices have been installed to ensure it stays that way.

Those studies and assurances have been an important part of our decision to support the expansion of the landfill in this space.  

Even the firefighters who arrived on the scene at Cortland Elementary on Tuesday said they detected no sign of contaminants such as carbon monoxide. But 63 students and teachers from Cortland went to the emergency room at Kishwaukee Hospital after the patients complained of sore throats, nausea and vomiting as a result of the heavy, sour odor that filled their school.

That is simply unacceptable.

Many of people were taken to the hospital no doubt out of an abundance of caution, but nonetheless, they required medical care for low-level exposure to carbon monoxide. Health officials thus far seem unable to pinpoint what the people at the school were exposed to, a question that deserves an answer.

To a teacher who has faith that District 428 will provide a safe work environment, and a parent who entrusts their child to the district’s care on a daily basis, this is about as serious as it gets.

Waste Management officials said they are good neighbors, but Tuesday’s mass transport to the hospital wasn’t the work of a good neighbor. Company officials need to demonstrate to the district and the public that this sort of fiasco can be prevented in the future.

District 428 officials in the past have been criticized for their decision to build a school so close to a landfill site. They have an obligation to take whatever steps are necessary to protect everyone who uses the school from environmental hazards. If they can’t do it, then close the building.

The stakes are too high to treat this as a fluke occurrence and move on.

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