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Concerns expressed, answers sought in Cortland Elementary incident

Published: Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014 9:20 a.m. CDT
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(Rob Winner – rwinner@shawmedia.com)
Parents pick up their children Tuesday from Cortland Elementary School in Cortland. Gas released from the nearby landfill got caught in the school's ventilation system making staff and students nauseous. Emergency personnel from fire departments including Cortland, DeKalb, Sycamore, Maple Park-Countryside, Elburn, Burlington, Hinckley and Genoa-Kingston were seen at the school.

CORTLAND – Danielle Bryant thinks the nearby landfill has been causing Cortland Elementary School students to be sick for months.

The Cortland Elementary School PTO president is hosting a meeting at 6 p.m. Friday at Cortland Lions Shelter, 70 S. Llanos St., for parents to discuss what their students have experienced in the past year.

Although headaches and upset stomachs are common maladies, Bryant said “a lot” of students have reported them in the last year. And, they are the same symptoms some students and staff reported Tuesday after Waste Management contractors hit a pocket of old garbage, which released a strong odor that prevailing winds carried to the school.

“My concern is there are little tiny leaks going into the ventilation of the school,” Bryant said. “Nothing wanted to be built there, because there are problems with the air.”

Meanwhile, officials from DeKalb School District 428, along with those from Waste Management, the operator of the landfill less than a mile from Cortland Elementary, are assuring parents and residents that Tuesday’s incident was an isolated one.

However, the school board president is promising he and his colleagues will discuss several solutions, including closing the school.

Officials with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency said they haven’t identified what gas was behind the foul odor, but they have determined Waste Management has resolved the situation, agency spokesperson Kim Biggs said Wednesday.

“We feel the situation [Tuesday] experienced by individuals at the school, the students and faculty, has been resolved [and] that the landfill did take action to remedy the immediate situation and those odors have all dissipated,” Biggs said.

On Tuesday, 71 people were treated at Kishwaukee Hospital for low-level carbon monoxide exposure, KishHealth System spokeswoman Theresa Komitas said, updating her previous count of 63 patients. A majority of those patients were walk-ins, and all patients have since been released, she said.

Defining the odor

Waste Management spokeswoman Lisa Disbrow ruled out methane entirely.

According to Biggs, the IEPA inspector who visited Wednesday wore a gas monitor that did not detect any harmful gases such as methane or hydrogen sulfide at the landfill or at Cortland Elementary. The hydrogen sulfide monitor at the school also did not show any sign of the harmful gas.

Donna Shehane, a field inspector from the agency’s regional office in Rockford, spoke with Waste Management and school officials. She also took a sample to determine what gas was emitted in conjunction with the smell. She is expected to submit her findings in a report within a week, Biggs said.

Shehane’s report will contain written summaries of the events from Waste Management and District 428 officials, as well as information on what substance could have caused students’ and staff members’ nausea, vomiting and headaches. It also will detail potential sanctions the agency could enforce.

The school was closed Tuesday afternoon, but students returned to class Wednesday.

“Everything is back to normal,” said Kimberly Lyle, Cortland Elementary principal.

Lyle said there were slightly more absences than normal Wednesday, but did not know if those were tied to the incident Tuesday or a flu that has been spreading.

Those opposed to landfill expansion said they warned something like this could happen.

Frankie Benson, who helped organize the anti-dump effort, said a chemist determined the hydrogen sulfide detectors at the school are not sufficient because they are placed at a higher level than students’ heights, causing readings to be inaccurate.

School leaders to discuss solutions

District 428 board President Tracy Williams said no one on the current board was a member when the measure for the landfill expansion was approved. The board will have an in-depth discussion on solutions, including the possibility of closing the school indefinitely.

“Everything will be on the table,” Williams said.

District 428 Superintendent James Briscoe believes Tuesday was an isolated incident and the district has spoken with Waste Management to ensure the company would change policies so similar work wouldn’t be performed during school hours. Briscoe wasn’t prepared to make any promises about future incidents, however.

“You cannot give anyone a guarantee that an emergency won’t happen,” Briscoe said. “We’re across the highway from a dump. I could go down the list of all the things that could happen at any of our schools. All we can do is prepare the best we can.”

Although Briscoe was impressed with the response from firefighters and paramedics and school staff, he knows the district can improve on communication with parents during emergency situations. Briscoe said the district needs to set a protocol so communication is clear. He also plans to have someone who can provide bilingual assistance communicating with parents.

“I understand the frustration,” Briscoe said. “We will review what went well and what could be improved upon. This will be a process where we make sure we get better and better. I think the discussion is far from over.”

Looking forward

DeKalb County Administrator Gary Hanson said he doesn’t expect plans for landfill expansion to change since the measure was already approved, but considerations will be taken in the future to prevent a similar incident, he said.

“You don’t do things when you have adverse weather conditions,” Hanson said. “It’s very simple.”

Waste Management’.s Disbrow would not release the name of the third party construction company it hired for the drillwork Tuesday, saying the incident was “still our responsibility.”

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