CORTLAND – Kaleb Jamar went back to Cortland Elementary School on Friday for the first time since Monday when he fell asleep in the snow during recess.
Kaleb’s mom, Rachel, usually gets calls from school staff to pick her son up because he’s being too hyper, which is why she was alarmed to learn he fell asleep. When she learned the next day the school was shut down because a foul odor for the DeKalb County landfill was making students and staff sick, she made a connection.
“I took him to doctors and we think he’s been sleeping so much because of something he was exposed to at the school,” Rachel said. “I got sick to my stomach putting him on the bus this morning.”
More than 120 concerned parents and community members gathered at the Cortland Lions shelter Friday night to air their concerns with representatives from Waste Management, DeKalb School District 428 and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
The IEPA still is uncertain what chemicals students and staff might have been exposed when drilling work Tuesday to replace the landfill’s odor control system led to a release of gas that winds carried toward Cortland Elementary.
Kurt Neibergall, the acting chief of the agency’s Bureau of Land, assured the community members who attended the emotional gathering that the agency is working as quickly as possible to determine what the gas was.
He tried to give them some comfort about the incident using information about an environmental inspector’s visit to the site Wednesday, in which no dangerous gases were detected.
“The incident is over. The trenches have been filled in,” Neibergall said. “We don’t have any data right now on what it was. What we’re committed to doing is getting a sample of the gases that were on site.”
On Friday, IEPA officials asked the Illinois Attorney General’s office to seek an immediate court order requiring Waste Management to take steps to prevent any future air pollution incidents and to reimburse costs incurred by the school, first responders and individuals affected, including the cost of reasonable and necessary medical treatment.
First responders transported about 45 people to Kishwaukee Community Hospital on Tuesday. In all, 71 people were treated for low levels of carbon monoxide exposure in relation to the incident, hospital officials have said.
DeKalb school board President Tracy Williams and Assistant Superintended Douglas Moeller were bombarded with questions about what the school district planned to do, including the fate of Cortland Elementary.
“If it proves to be real over time that we need to close that building, if it’s tomorrow, if it’s a year from now, then we will close that building,” Williams said. “All options are on the table.”
Williams and Moeller reiterated that the district plans to evaluate the situation, but told parents it would take time to formulate a plan. A rough timeframe for an action plan would be 30 days, although that could change, Moeller said. In the meantime, students will continue to attend Cortland.
“Why is it OK to use our kids as guinea pigs?” parent Tracy Fowler asked.
Not everyone who attended the meeting came with anxiety.
Jammi Martin, whose daughter, Delanie, 11, was taken from Cortland Elementary in an ambulance Tuesday, was not nearly as concerned as the majority of the parents at the Lions shelter.
“I have no concerns,” Martin said. “I think it’s an overreaction.”
Mike Hey, Waste Management district manager, also fielded a number of questions from parents who ranged from angry to understanding during the more than two-hour meeting. The landfill, which has been approved to expand by almost 350 acres to accept as much as 1,800 tons of trash a day, has been operating for decades at the site. Cortland Elementary was built for about $15 million and opened in fall 2009.
“It will not happen again,” Hey said. “We are committed to help figuring it out. We want to be good neighbors.”
Of the dozens of questions parents raised, few were met with solid answers.
Cortland Elementary Parent Teacher Association members, who hosted the meeting, took notes in order to forward the questions on to school, landfill and environmental officials in hopes of getting answers to use in future discussions.