March 29, 2009
For four decades, Bayshore Elementary was the picture of a neighborhood school, a red-brick building among tidy houses on a tree-lined street in Shoreacres.
But look again. Six months after Hurricane Ike ripped through this bayside town, there are plans to relocate the flood-damaged school to a vacant lot along Texas 146, a workaday road for the Bayport terminal and several chemical plants.
The La Porte Independent School District says the site is safe, but some parents aren’t so sure. This much is clear: Texas, like most states, lacks environmental standards for deciding where to build new schools.
Amid grumbling about school sites, lawmakers are considering a bill that would require school districts to establish policies for selecting places to build, subject to the approval of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
The bill — sponsored by state Rep. Donna Howard and Sen. Kirk Watson, both Austin Democrats — stops short of prohibiting school districts from building in certain spots. But it would force districts to notify the public before buying property for a new school if an initial environmental assessment raises any red flags.
The proposed legislation comes after a lengthy and costly effort by a suburban Austin district to open a new elementary school on land previously used by a chemical company. The school opened last August.
Nationwide, most school projects are regulated only by local land-use laws, which some experts described as haphazard when it comes to evaluating environmental risks. As a result, many cash-strapped districts have opted to build on relatively cheap land on or near toxic waste sites.
“There is nothing in Texas law that helps districts think about site selection in a concrete way,” said Eleanor D’Ambrosio, Howard’s chief of staff. “We’re trying to get the conversation started.”
While school districts have expressed concern about maintaining local control over construction decisions, the bill has the support of environmentalists, health professionals and parent and teacher groups.
Elena Craft, a Houston-based toxicologist for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the bill is an important first step. But she would like it to set tougher standards, such as minimum distances from highways.
“There is a need to protect children from this deficiency of common sense,” Craft said.
Still, if the bill becomes law, projects like the new Bayshore Elementary would come under closer scrutiny.
La Porte school officials picked the new location in part because the old site is too small, too low in elevation and too close to Galveston Bay, which is 450 yards away.
But the new 20-acre site is located along Texas 146, a primary route for diesel trucks working the Bayport terminal, about a half-mile away. A rail line runs behind the property.
Studies have shown that children are especially vulnerable to diesel exhaust, which is full of tiny particles that can damage their developing lungs and cause cancer.
There is also concern among parents about trucks spilling hazardous chemicals, such as ammonia and chlorine, near the new school.
“We’re really afraid,” said Kathryn Aguilar, a nearby resident who wants the school to be rebuilt in the same spot as before. “This a decision that will impact children for decades.”