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Our View: Don’t close Cortland school now

Published: Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014 11:35 p.m. CDT

All of the parties involved in the recent incident at Cortland Elementary School in which landfill odors sickened students, teachers and staff have a vested interest in making sure what occurred there Jan. 14 never happens again.

Parents have the right to demand a safe school environment for their children. District 428 officials have a duty to keep students and employees safe that they do not take lightly. Waste Management must prove it can operate and expand the landfill near the school in a safe manner.

Based on the data available, however, closing Cortland Elementary seems like a cure that would be worse than the malady.

Official reports on the incident all say that toxic landfill gases such as hydrogen sulfide, methane and carbon monoxide were not detected at the landfill or at the school when the heavy, sour odor of old garbage was pumped through the school ventilation system. Readings were taken by air monitors in the school and at the landfill by firefighters, Waste Management and its contractors, the school district, and an Illinois Environmental Protection Agency inspector.

The odor was released when trench work to install a new pipe for the gas collection system came across an 80- to 100-foot section of the landfill that contained waste from decades ago. The company has vowed not to undertake this work on windy days in the future, or when school is in session.

We also know that closing Cortland Elementary would be expensive, disruptive and almost physically impossible. District 428 officials say they don’t have the space in the other district buildings to absorb the more than 500 students at the school. Even if they were to try to shoehorn them all into other classes, it’s a virtual certainty that children would be separated from their friends and teachers, and their ability to learn no doubt would be affected.

The school district has added more carbon monoxide detectors at the building, which already is equipped with hydrogen sulfide detectors, and its staff no doubt will be vigilant for future signs of trouble. Cortland Fire officials plan to recommend that the school’s ventilation system be inspected and studied.

School officials asked this week for 30 days to come up with a plan to address the situation, and Waste Management likely will have a court-ordered mandate to cover the medical costs and formulate a prevention plan.

That is a reasonable request, and this does seem like a problem that should be solvable. The area around the school was not blanketed by a foul odor for hours. The incident report from Cortland Fire said firefighters noticed a slight odor outside the building when they first arrived, but not long after, while others on the scene reported the air outside smelled fine as people were being taken away in ambulances.

The problem seems to have been caused by the ventilation system at the school recirculating the garbage smell throughout the building.

If after 30 days, the school district and the company both say they are confident such an incident will not be repeated, we expect they will be very certain. This type of incident will not be soon forgotten or tolerated once every five years or so.

A second failure to protect student safety could have dire consequences.

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