4th November 2016

The Rapides Parish School Board will consider selling a portion of the land where the J.S. Slocum Learning Center is currently located, months after the Environmental Protection Agency found contaminated soil on the property.

Board member Willard “Bubba” McCall and concerned citizens brought up the EPA reports from earlier this fall and summer at Tuesday’s meeting when the district proposed exploring an offer from the former Colfax Creosote company to purchase an unspecified amount of the land on Crepe Myrtle Street in Pineville.

The EPA conducted surface soil sampling in February and air sampling in June in response to “concerns voiced by citizens in Alexandria and Pineville,” according to a Sept. 26 letter from the agency to RPSB President Keith Breazeale. The letter, which can be viewed at www.epa.gov, says soil samples “reveal potential risks for school-age children from exposure to dioxin that might arise from ingestion, skin contact or inhalation while on the playground.”

The J.S. Slocum Learning Center, formerly known as Rapides Training Academy, serves between 50 and 60 students with special needs, most of whom live at St. Mary’s Residential Training School in Alexandria.

“EPA advises that the children not play in the RTA playground until a protective long-term solution is identified and implemented,” the letter continued.

Air samples taken returned similar results as ones performed by Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality 2013-15, according to the EPA.

“The concentration levels of some of the contaminants from the EPA testing are potentially higher than the EPA long-term screening levels for toxics in ambient air. EPA does not have a federal regulatory standard for toxics in ambient air, therefore the results were compared to the Louisiana Toxic Air Pollutant Ambient Air Standards and all results are within the acceptable risk range.”

The district advised the school early in the summer not to allow students on the playground before the September results were returned, according to an Oct. 18 memo that went out to J.S. Slocum employees and was later provided to The Town Talk. The letter, signed by Rapides Superintendent Nason “Tony” Authement, was informing staff of indoor dust sampling results, which were conducted as a followup to the soil sampling.

Those sample results “did not exceed the non-cancer screening level or the cancer risk range used by the EPA,” the agency wrote on Oct. 13.

“No additional action is necessary,” the letter continued. “The EPA recommends the continuation of your good house-cleaning measures at the school.”

Still, some board members at Tuesday’s meeting questioned why students hadn’t been moved to another facility. Authement said “we have an alternative site we were prepared to move students to,” but that has not been deemed necessary.

Board attorney James “Jam” Downs also emphasized to The Town Talk there is no reason to move students from the campus at this point. Some board members disagreed; they voted to proceed with an appraisal and advertise for bids after discussion about students’ current situation.

Wilton Barrios said he did not trust the federal government to be honest about the risks.

“We should have moved them that day,” McCall said, apparently referring to when the district was notified about the soil contamination.

Roy Rachal, supervisor of risk management, construction and maintenance for Rapides schools, cited past problems with flooding from Red River backwash at the site and a potential cost savings as reasons the district is considering the sale and eventually moving students. He said the campus is underutilized.

A handful of  J.S. Slocum teachers were present and voiced their objections when Authement said the district could again move students to the site of R.A.P.P.S. (Rapides Alternative Positive Program for Students). The school has temporarily moved there during flooding.

“Unfortunately, that was a miserable experience,” one teacher said.

“My question is, ‘Why aren’t we back on St. Mary’s property?” another woman said. ” … That could save the school board some money.”

She added that neither R.A.P.P.S. or J.S. Slocum can meet the population’s needs at present.

“We really need a facility that can address the needs of these children,” she said. “They love to go outside, and we can’t take them outside anymore.”

Read the full EPA reports from J.S. Slocum here.