Safety questions keep bubbling up at Girdwood school

Posted: Monday, April 23, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Concerns are being raised about a 20-year-old school in Girdwood built over the site of an old landfill.

Heavy rains over the winter break sent groundwater percolating through a ball field next to the playground at Girdwood K-8.

A mysterious brown goop coated the clothing of a number of students who later played there. It created a foul smell that took several washings to make it disappear.

Teachers noticed the odor immediately but couldn't trace it. The next day, crews from the Anchorage School District surrounded the ball field with an orange plastic barrier.

That was in January.

The orange mesh is still there.

Parents, school officials and environmental regulators still don't know what that foul stuff was -- or whether it poses a threat to the school's water well, downhill from the buried landfill.

Parents want to know more. Many have had questions about the landfill for years. Several parents have created a task force to research the landfill and its effect on their children's health.

The group is holding a public meeting Wednesday night with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to share what it has learned.

The parent group said it doesn't want to create hysteria; it just wants to know more.

Julie Jonas, one of the parents in the task force, said some other parents send their children to school with bottled water.

''I'm not saying anybody else should,'' Jonas told the Anchorage Daily News. ''I'm not saying there's a problem, but until I'm convinced that everything is safe, I'm doing that as a precaution.''

This isn't the first problem with the landfill, she said. Over the years, other parents have reported a pink ooze percolating out of the ground, a rusty car fender emerging, and a doll surfacing.

District officials contend water at the school is safe. The district installed a water treatment system in the mid-1990s.

Monthly water tests reveal no problems, said Girdwood principal Jim Cox.

But Cox is the first to say the school is battling at least a perception problem that deserves action.

''I think something has to be done out there,'' Cox said. ''Even if it's not a health concern we should do something because kids shouldn't be playing in a smelly mess.''

Cox is hoping the Girdwood community and officials find consensus on what to do about the landfill within a year to 18 months.

Samples taken in February and more recent preliminary tests by a district consultant at two sites around the field revealed no problems. But the consultant couldn't locate any of the smelly goo, according to Michael Franks, the district's construction manager for major maintenance.

The district also wants to make sure contamination isn't permeating through water lines, Franks said. The lines are triple-lined, but they do go through an old honey bucket dump area.

A November report from the DEC rated the school well's vulnerability as high for bacteria, viruses and nitrates and very high for synthetic compounds like toxic agents in gasoline.

The Anchorage Water & Wastewater Utility is proposing a new $4 million water line along the Alyeska Highway, coupled with new water storage facilities. The utility needs $1 million to finish the project, and officials hope to snare a grant.

But utility and district officials say the project is not connected to the landfill or water quality issues.

The school needs water for fire protection, Franks said, because the well doesn't produce enough.

''We don't have anything from the health department that says Girdwood school has a health problem associated with its water,'' he said. ''We need to view them as separate things. There is no fire flow at that school.''

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