Re-Opening of Norrell Elementary Stirs Protests From Parents, Activists
The Richmond School Board has voted 8-1 in favor of moving over 250 pre-school age children (ages 3-4) from schools on the East End to Norrell Elementary in the Barton Heights Neighborhood. School officials claim that methane gas, mold, and carbon dioxide levels at Norrell are “Within acceptable limits.” However, families and community members retort: ”‘Within acceptable limits’ for whose children?”
The Norrell Elementary School is built on a landfill and community members argue that there were deadly methane gas leaks. The methane gas rises up out of the decomposing landfill buried beneath the school. The school yard actually features a fenced-in metal exhaust vent with an eternal flame for burning off the excess methane. The school was finally shut down in 2006 after a horrendous flood of sewage from a broken line. Community members had worked tirelessly to close the school for close to a decade.
School system officials insist that Norrell is safe to reopen as a temporary home for its East End preschool “Center for Excellence,” citing the fact that the school has in fact been open since 2007 for city parks and recreation activities, including a boxing academy. More recently, it served as a temporary home to one of the city’s library branches. Richmond Public Schools Chief Operating Officer P. Andy Hawkins, who is overseeing last-minute renovations to Norrell in advance of students arriving on Sept. 10 (pre-k programs start a week after regular school), says the science indicates that most dumps continue to emit dangerous levels of methane only for about 20 years and the landfill is closed over 60 years ago.
However, Kathryn Perszyk, solid waste permit coordinator with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality states, “I’ve heard 20 years…it could be 50 years — or it could be more. If there was still landfill gas [in 2001] it could be there is a pathway for landfill gas to still be measured in there.”
Richmond Mag presents a historical review of the Norell school:
City and school system documents obtained and reviewed by Richmond magazine that span from 1956 when construction began on the schools all the way to 2001, chronicle a 50-year struggle to control — and sometimes downplay — dangerous levels of methane gas seeping up through the soil and into both the Norrell and Whitcomb buildings.
A 1964 letter from the city’s department of public utilities informed school officials that a worker’s cigarette had ignited an area of ground that burned for at least two hours with what was described as a “gentle flame.”
Norrell and its sister school, Whitcomb Elementary, were constructed as segregated schools and were built on or near the site of former city trash dumps.
Community member Art Burton stated that the reopening is: ”not about … the tests. It’s environmental racism. We fought to get off the dump. Why should we have to turn around and go back?”
Jon Henry comes from the small town of Washington, Virginia. Xe finished xes degree at the University of Richmond and was named GayRVA.com's Out.Spoken. Richmonder of the Year for 2011. When not in class, xe is either in the studio or rabble rousing with other queer activists. Follow xem on Twitter.
Walkout participants signed a petition against the non-hire and ended the rally with a prayer.April 10, 2015
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