By Rob Glidden
The middle schools renovation project is poised to clear a major hurdle, after officials received verbal confirmation from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that the cheaper plan for the remediation of hazardous materials will likely be approved.
The news came during an evening when the plan to renovate Kennedy and DePaolo Middle Schools took several steps forward. During a joint meeting of the Board of Education and the Building Committee, both boards approved the current renovation plans. Later that evening, the Town Council voted to set a public hearing on January 28, the next step towards establishing a new referendum on the project in March.
The tentative verdict from the EPA comes after months of anxiety about how much it would cost the town to clean up the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) discovered at the two schools. The sticking point was the “vapor barriers” inside the school walls, which although completely sealed off from the rest of the building, were found to be contaminated.
Removing these vapor barriers was expected to add $14 million worth of additional costs to the project, which officials frequently said would send the whole plan back to square one.
Town Councilor Chris Palmieri, the assistant principal at DePaolo who also sits on the building committee, said he received the good news during a conference call with EPA officials.
“They reported to us that as long as conditions remain the same in terms of air quality, they feel favorable towards recommending that we maintain the vapor barriers,” he said. “There’s no real need to disturb these walls.”
As a condition to this approval, the town will be asked to conduct annual air quality tests at the two schools. Tests conducted last year at the two schools revealed that the air was safe for the students and staff. Officials expect it will cost about $7,700 each year to test the air quality at both middle schools.
The remediation work will be done at times students are not in schools, including the summers of 2013 and 2014 and some of the week-long school vacations if necessary.
With the plans approved, the architects at Fletcher Thompson will now be seeking approval from the state, which is needed because state funding is paying for the majority of the work.
“This is an aggressive schedule and Newfield has been great in terms of helping us meet the deadlines,” said Melissa Sheffy, who sits on the building committee.
Even with the cheaper abatement option, the final cost of the renovation projects was greater than the $85 million approved by voters at the 2011 referendum. This was due to the severity of the PCB contamination and by schematic mistakes made by Fletcher Thompson that increased the cost of the project. The town’s municipal boards are in the process of establishing a new referendum on Tuesday, March 19 that will ask voters to support an additional $4.7 million. However, because of increased state reimbursement, this version of the proposal actually uses less Southington tax dollars.
The town councilors were relieved to hear the news about the EPA and praised the building committee for its hard work in the wake of a series of setbacks to the project.
“This was very difficult and your committee did an outstanding job making hard choices,” said Councilor Al Natelli.
Councilor John Barry added that the committee had faced the “critical stages” of the middle school project early on, and praised Palmieri in particular for fighting to keep the renovations on track.
The council’s public hearing on the new referendum will take place at the start of its next meeting on Monday, January 28.