EPA to monitor air quality outside Paulsboro High School

plays kickball in the shadow of an oil refinery. Paulsboro is the only area school whose air quality will be monitored by the EPA.
plays kickball in the shadow of an oil refinery. Paulsboro is the only area school whose air quality will be monitored by the EPA.
Posted: April 01, 2009

Federal authorities will monitor the air quality outside Paulsboro High School, which sits in the shadow of several oil refineries in Gloucester County, under an initiative announced yesterday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Sixty-two schools around the country, including a handful in Pennsylvania, will take part in the program, which aims to find out "what children are breathing at school," said Ray Werner, chief of air programs for Region Two, which includes New Jersey and New York.

Paulsboro High School, with about 475 students, was the only school in the Philadelphia area selected to participate, based on its proximity to heavy industry. Directly behind its football field is the Valero Refinery, covering more than 900 acres.

Nearby are the Nu Star Energy and Sunoco Refineries and the Exxon Mobil Research Laboratory and Air Products Chemicals Group. Officials said outdoor air monitoring at the selected schools will begin almost immediately in some cases and roll out over the next 60 to 90 days.

"As a mother, I understand that concerned parents deserve this information as quickly as we can gather and analyze it," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, former head of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, in a statement. "EPA, state, and local officials are mobilizing to determine where elevated levels of toxics pose a threat, so that we can take swift action to protect our children at their schools."

EPA officials say the study was triggered by a news report in USA Today, a computer modeling analysis conducted by the EPA, and data collected from state and local environmental agencies. The information showed that some students might face health risks from long-term exposure to toxics because their schools are close to heavy industry or are in urban areas with high pollution levels.

"Our concern is the long-term effects, and we don't anticipate finding chemical exposures at high enough levels to cause immediate concern," said Cathy Milbourn, spokeswoman for the EPA. "But if we do, we will immediately take action."

In Paulsboro, a community of about 6,000, the EPA will test for metals such as lead, nickel and manganese, which can be emitted from refinery smokestacks; carbonyls; and volatile organic compounds. The toxics are known to cause or suspected of causing cancer and other serious health effects, including respiratory and neurological problems, the EPA says.

The EPA will monitor the sites for six weeks and follow up with laboratory analysis.

The news caught the Paulsboro mayor, school principal, and a high school parent by surprise.

"It stinks here all the time, but my kids are fine as far as health issues go. As far as I know," said Diane Benson, who has three children who attend the public schools. She wasn't aware of the EPA plan.

School principal John Morina also said he had not heard about the monitoring.

School Superintendent Frank Scambia said notices describing the program would be sent home with students today. He said that "residents here are used to the refineries" and that the school has been closed a few times in the past, for part of the day, when there have been emission leaks from Valero.

Last year, Valero installed a rooftop sensor on the school that sounds an alarm when there are abnormal emissions, Scambia said. Valero also made modifications to the gymnasium to ensure a better seal around the doors in case of an emergency, Scambia said.

"The Valero Paulsboro Refinery has monitoring systems in place that are geared toward protecting our neighbors as well as our employees," said spokeswoman Lisa Lindsey. She said most of the stacks "sample exhaust gases continuously," and alarms are triggered whenever there is any problem. Lindsey said the plant is inspected by the state DEP.

Mayor John Burzichelli said he welcomed the EPA monitoring "as long as it's not redundant" with the testing the state already does. A 1972 graduate of the high school and a state assemblyman, Burzichelli said he was not aware of any health problems specifically tied to the refineries and the town.

"Valero is an installation that was here in 1916. The town was built around it. Everyone knows it's here," said Burzichelli. He said the refineries provide jobs and that the town "coexists with industry."

The high school was built in 1919; the backdrop to its football field is an assortment of oil tanks, refinery apparatus, and tall stacks.

"New Jersey is a heavily industrialized state," said Burzichelli, saying there are documented respiratory health problems along the Delaware River and other areas.

Charles Pietarinen, chief of DEP's Bureau of Air Monitoring, said the state had been monitoring air quality for years at four locations in the state, but not in Paulsboro.

The sites are in Elizabeth, New Brunswick, Camden and Chester, Morris County, and are monitored for a variety of pollutants.

"We collect general air quality information to give us a picture of the maximum exposure levels of pollutants," he said. Pietarinen said the EPA study would determine what action should be taken if the levels were considered excessive.

Werner, the EPA air program chief, said emissions at refineries and plants are inspected regularly for pollution, but this new program will focus on whether there are health effects from the toxics that escape.

"It's inevitable that some pollution escapes. But it's only a health issue if the concentrations of that pollution are high enough to cause health concerns," he said. "We're taking this initiative to get a better understanding of what students are being exposed to. . . . We're trying to restore public confidence in the agency and show that we're on the job and trying to protect public health."

The schools in Pennsylvania that will be monitored are Clairton Educational Center, South Allegheny Middle/High School in McKeesport, Sto-Rox Elementary and Middle Schools in McKees Rocks, Riverside Elementary School in Reading, and Kreutz Creek Valley Elementary School in Hallam. In New Jersey, the Mabel Holmes Middle School in Elizabeth also will participate.

Contact staff writer Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com

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