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Riverside gets the word: School construction will begin next month


Waving a blue, child-sized plastic shovel, Tony Oleszczuk demanded he be told when school and county officials would break ground on a long-awaited elementary school in his Riverside neighborhood.

Mr. Oleszczuk's theatrics got a chuckle at a Thursday afternoon meeting at which County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann and county school Superintendent Ray R. Keech were present.

But Mr. Oleszczuk also got the answer he wanted.

"We will break ground next month and do everything possible to assure that the school opens in September 1993," Mr. Keech assured Mr. Oleszczuk and other parents.

Construction of the 600-pupil school, at Church Creek Road and Riverside Parkway in Belcamp, was delayed by the county school system, pending a third test for chemical contaminants at the site.

Annoyed by the delay, many Riverside residents argued two earlier tests found no reason to delay construction and called a third unneeded. They wanted construction to begin as soon as possible so the school could open by its planned target date.

Mr. Oleszczuk said he was happy construction was finally scheduled to begin, but he added that Riverside residents would keep monitoring progress of the school by attending any meetings about it and visiting the site frequently.

"Don't be surprised if you see T-shirts saying, 'I survived the toluene scare of 1992' at the ground-breaking," Mr. Oleszczuk said.

The second environmental test at the site revealed trace amounts of toluene vapor, an industrial solvent and gasoline additive that can harm the liver, kidneys and respiratory system if ingested or inhaled.

County and school officials were so alarmed by the toluene, which appeared in amounts well below federal guidelines, that they ordered construction of the school delayed until an additional test could be conducted. Results of this third test, which took soil samples at a depth of up to 25 feet, also confirmed small amounts of chemicals.

Riverside Community Association members, including Mr. Oleszczuk, had argued that another test -- the site's third in less than six months -- was a waste of time.

School and county officials countered, however, that the site's history necessitated another precautionary test.

Portions of the site, located nearby across U.S. 40, formerly served as "latex lagoons" from 1972 to 1978 by the Bata Shoe Co. Bata used the site, with the blessing and supervision of environmental officials, to dispose of water that cleaned

manufacturing equipment used in making inner soles at the shoe factory. The site was cleaned up under state and federal standards.

Questions about the site arose when a drilling crew reported becoming ill while working there in February. Two environmental tests this spring, one paid for by Riverside's developer and one ++ by the school system, found no reason for the reported illness.

The third test, results of which were released at the Thursday meeting, also found no reason for the illness. In addition, officials said the tests proved the site had been cleaned properly.

Thomas M. Thomas, county health officer, said at Tuesday's meeting that he approved the site as long as plans for the school included six health and safety recommendations from an environmental consulting group.

The recommendations, including building modifications and regular testing for contaminants, came from FWA Environmental Associates Inc. FWA, which tested the site at the request of the school board in the spring, found the earlier traces of toluene vapor.

State and county environmental officials also said they were prepared to approve the site. The school board, which has final say, is expected to approve the site at a special meeting Aug. 17.

General construction bids would be opened Aug. 18 and awarded by Aug. 31, enabling construction to begin in September, school officials said.

Mr. Keech, the superintendent, said bids had been solicited before the official results of the third test because he didn't want to hold up construction.

In the past, it has taken at least 14 months to build an elementary school. Mr. Keech, however, said he is confident the Riverside school can be "essentially completed" to open on time.

"Classrooms will be ready for students, but the gymnasium or the cafeteria, for example, might not be ready at the start of school," he said. "Students might have to brown-bag it for the first few weeks."

To guarantee the school will open in time for next year's students, Mr. Keech said a construction management team would be hired to supervise construction and quickly move to solve any problems.

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