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Week after landfill incident, Cortland Elementary parents want solution

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014 10:37 p.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014 10:43 p.m. CDT

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DeKALB –  Chris Fowler wants to keep his child in the DeKalb School District 428, but not if it means attending Cortland Elementary School. 

“Some people feel comfortable returning. For those of us that don’t, please help us find another option,” Fowler asked District 428 board members Tuesday night. “I urge you, please help us find another option, another school to send our children to.”

A week after they were told a smell from the nearby landfill was blown into their children’s school, Fowler and other Cortland Elementary parents asked board members for a solution. 

They were told to wait a month. 

The Cortland Elementary parents who attended Tuesday’s meeting were met with a written statement from the board reiterating the district goal to have an action plan to address the students’ safety at the school in 30 days.

On Jan. 14, a third party contractor working on the DeKalb County Landfill operated by Waste Management hit a pocket of old garbage and released a foul odor into the air that traveled to the school where it entered the ventilation system and caused 71 people to be treated at Kishwaukee Hospital.

Before any parents had the chance to voice their concerns about the incident and the plan going forward, school board President Tracy Williams read a prepared statement regarding the district’s plan for moving forward.  

He explained the district has a 30-day target for an action plan that will address air quality at the school and will be based on reports from the emergency personnel who responded Jan. 14 as well as the agencies investigating the incident. The district has engaged a consultant to formulate a long-term solution. 

“All the right questions cannot be asked and answered overnight,” Williams said. “This is a top priority for this district and will continue to be until these issues have been addressed.” 

Although the normal protocol during the public comment section is to allow commenters three minutes to speak, people were limited to a little more than one minute during Tuesday’s meeting. Williams explained this was to keep the meeting moving forward because seven commenters were there to speak regarding the same thing.

The first to speak was Danielle Bryant, a Cortland parent who organized a meeting last week between parents and school district, Waste Management and Illinois Environmental Protection Agency officials.

Bryant said she regretted not opposing Cortland Elementary’s location before it opened in 2009.

“It took a real life incident like this,” Bryant said. “We need to get our children out of that school until it is safe, and we do more testing.” 

Agencies investing the incident have yet to determine what gas was released. Those who visited Kishwaukee Hospital in relation to the incident were treated for low levels of carbon monoxide exposure. Testing on Jan. 14 and 15 did not yield any readings for harmful gases commonly associated with landfills such as hydrogen sulfide or methane.

Bryant this week started an online petition to close the school until more testing by a third party could be conducted to assure the school’s safety. 

The district has a hydrogen sulfide monitor located in the school and more monitors that check for carbon monoxide and other harmful gases were installed during the weekend.  Other parents asked for more hydrogen sulfide monitors to be installed inside and outside the school.

Cortland parent Allen Harrelson asked the district to move Cortland students to Chesebro, a school the district is not using. He criticized the district’s move to keep students in Cortland when officials don’t know what the students and staff were exposed to. 

“Putting in more monitors is not putting the children’s health and safety first. That’s putting their health and safety second and the schools’ budget first,” Harrelson said. 

After the meeting, Williams said moving the nearly 600 students who attend Cortland to another school presents logistical problems.

“It’s never quite as simple as, ‘Yeah, come over here.’ It’s more complicated than that,” he said.   

During his prepared statement, Williams said the incident at Cortland last week opened up a much larger discussion about safety at all schools. He pointed out trains and trucks pass by a number of the district’s schools daily.

This comparison did little, if anything to soothe any concerns from Cortland parents including Harrelson.

“(Williams) compared trains and trucks passing by the landfill, but how many of those trains just sit there with dangerous gases and chemicals?” Harrelson asked.

Angela Miller read a statement on behalf of Cortland Elementary staff. 

“We look forward to business as usual as we finish the school year,” Miller said.

Williams promised to keep dialogue open as the district’s fact-finding mission moves forward. 

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