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Concerns about landfill didn’t surface until after Cortland Elementary opened

More than 130 people attended a meeting Friday at the Cortland Lions shelter to discuss the incident at Cortland Elementary School this week in which a foul odor caused students and staff to get sick.
More than 130 people attended a meeting Friday at the Cortland Lions shelter to discuss the incident at Cortland Elementary School this week in which a foul odor caused students and staff to get sick.

CORTLAND – Years ago, when DeKalb School District 428 leaders were planning the new Cortland Elementary School, then-board president Mike Verbic heard from several residents.

They weren’t talking about the Waste Management landfill about a half-mile away, though.

“I heard more from people about the costs than the proximity to the landfill,” Verbic said.

When Cortland Elementary was being built, officials said they didn’t encounter the same level of concern raised in the week since students and staff were sickened by a foul odor from the nearby landfill that entered the school’s ventilation system.

School district officials have said they might spend weeks developing an action plan in response to last week’s incident, with some parents urging them to close the school until more equipment can be installed and others questioning the wisdom of having a school so close to a landfill set to dramatically expand.

Verbic said he stands by the former school board’s choice of a school site, with the condition that Waste Management take care to manage the dump in a way that won’t disturb those that surround it.

“I believe the school’s great there, but if Waste Management is not a responsible neighbor, if Waste Management does not have the enforcement on site, I believe they should pay to relocate the school,” Verbic said.

The quest for new facilities

Verbic served as the District 428’s board president as the plans for the elementary school at 370 E. Lexington Ave. were coming together in 2005. He continued to serve on the school board until last year, when he made an unsuccessful run for mayor of DeKalb.

Although some parents were worried about their children attending the school, they were consoled, he said. The move to open an elementary school across Interstate 88 from a landfill was done with the consent of voters, he added, after extensive tests were performed to determine the site was safe.

“We were all reassured that site would be safe forever, or we would never have built the school there,” Verbic said.

Voters in February 2008 approved a $110 million construction referendum, giving the district the authority to build a new elementary school and high school. Oakbrook Terrace-based developer Montalbano Homes donated 13 acres of land to the district to construct the school in the Chestnut Grove subdivision. Without
the donation, Verbic estimated the land for the new school would have cost more than $700,000.

Cortland Elementary was built for $15 million and opened in August 2009.

More concern arose when it was announced that Waste Management wanted to expand by almost 350 acres to accept as much as 1,800 tons of trash a day, Verbic said.

Monitoring hydrogen sulfide

In May 2010 a preliminary air test showed measurable amounts of hydrogen sulfide in and outside the school. A colorless, poisonous, flammable gas, hydrogen sulfide, or H2S, is a natural byproduct of decomposition. Long-term exposure to low levels of hydrogen sulfide can cause eye irritation, headache, and fatigue, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s website.

The incident last week was the first time since the school opened that landfill odors have caused such a reaction, although no levels of hydrogen sulfide, methane, or any other toxic gases were detected, school, landfill and fire officials have said.

The monitor has a live feed that links to Cortland Elementary’s website. According to the monitor, the school notification and response system kicks in when the eight-hour concentration of hydrogen sulfide eclipses 20 parts per billion. The latest reading showed a reading of less than one part per billion, meaning no gas was detected.

Looking forward

More recently, the district installed several new carbon monoxide detectors and had Cortland Fire Department personnel take toxic gas readings over the weekend, said Tracy Williams, the current District 428 board president.

The district also plans to consult with an outside contractor once the district receives reports from first responders who were on the scene Tuesday and from Illinois Environmental Protection Agency officials, who visited the landfill and the school Wednesday.

Some parents remain uncomfortable sending their children back to Cortland and have started an online petition for the district to close the school until more testing equipment is placed in and outside the school and emergency plans are in place.

Danielle Bryant was among the first group of parents to send her child to the school when it opened in 2009. At the time she was satisfied with the promises the school was safe. But after the incident Tuesday sent her researching landfills, she started the Clean Air for Cortland Elementary group, which is behind the petition.

Several parents, including Bryant, plan to attend the District 428 board meeting at 7 p.m. tonight to voice their concern during the public comment portion of the meeting.

If you go

What: DeKalb School District 428  board meeting

When: 7 p.m. today

Where: Forum room at DeKalb High School, 501 W. Dresser Road


See the parents’ petition online:

See readings from the Cortland Elementary School hydrogen sulfide monitor:

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