El Dorado school site needs cleanup

The El Dorado school district has identified a site for a new middle school, but before construction can begin, landowners must attend to groundwater pollutants left from an old oil refinery tank farm.

The 40-acre site sits on the west side of North Topeka Street, between roughly 10th and 14th avenues, in El Dorado. The land was previously used for asphalt manufacturing and as a tank farm for an oil refinery north of the site.

Refinery operations were discontinued in 1993 and asphalt operations stopped in 2004, but pollutant levels in the groundwater and soil still measure higher than the maximum levels allowed for residential use by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

On Oct. 11, the school district announced a preliminary agreement to purchase the land for $1,000. Texas-based El Paso Corp. acquired the site in a 2001 merger with Coastal Corp.

The site was one of four that the school board considered for a new middle school, said board president Leon Leachman. He said the district chose it because of the location, low price and assurances that the site would eventually meet KDHE safety benchmarks.

Leachman stressed that the district can walk away at no cost if the cleanup proves too costly.

"The key issue is the safety of the kids,'' he said. "If the site doesn't pass muster, we will move on."

Superintendent Sue Givens said the site purchase will not be final until the area is certified by the state for residential use, and that the district and El Paso will work together to ensure that happens.

The cost of remediation is still being negotiated between the two parties, Givens said.

The entire site has tested positive for high concentrations of total petroleum hydrocarbons, which are several different chemical compounds that come from crude oil.

The highest concentration has been found north of the proposed school site, but KDHE found elevated contaminant levels on the northern and western edges of the 40-acre plot as well.

Concentrations of the chemicals measure from 0.3 to 5 milligrams per liter at the highest point. The state limit in residential neighborhoods is 0.5 milligrams per liter.

One of the chemicals, benzene, is a carcinogen, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. High exposure to some of the other chemicals has impaired the lungs, central nervous system, liver, kidneys and reproduction of animal test subjects.

KDHE environmental scientist Maggie Weiser said she is optimistic that the site can be rendered safe for a school, but said it was too early to estimate how long that might take.

"It's not uncommon for levels to be elevated in that range for a refinery," said Weiser, project manager of the site for KDHE.

El Paso Corp. spokesperson Richard Wheatley said preliminary evaluation of 49 soil bores and about 150 soil samples have indicated that the property would be suitable for a school, as long as the proper clean-up actions are taken.

Regular groundwater monitoring began in 2005 and is done twice a year, as directed by KDHE.

El Paso officials have submitted a site risk assessment report to KDHE this month. The department will review that report and plans to meet with El Paso representatives in the near future, Weiser said. After that, the department will develop a mitigation plan, called a corrective action decision, for the entire refinery area, not limited to the 40-acre school site.

Possible remediation efforts could include restricting groundwater use and using vapor barriers in the new school's external walls and floors.

The middle school will be paid for by a bond issue voters approved Nov. 2. In pre-election information, the district listed plans to open the middle school by 2014.

Givens said that time line is still on track.