By Lisa Loomis
Waitsfield Elementary School parents, educators, school board and community members are meeting tonight, June 19, to discuss repairs to a school soccer field where work was halted after the original contractor applied herbicides to it while children were present.
Since May 29, contractors hired by the school sprayed herbicide on the field on two occasions when children were present and failed to properly mark the field. On at least one of those occasions, the wind was blowing from the south to the north, from the soccer field towards the playground.
At its second emergency board meeting this week, the board et al will discuss with community members how to complete the task of repairing the soccer field, located on the south side of the school between the school and the Waitsfield Fire Station.
That meeting takes place at the school at 7 p.m. It follows a Monday, June 16, meeting held for community members to voice concerns and ask questions about what happened at the field and how it occurs. Present were members of the school board, the administration, and representatives from the state department of agriculture and health.
SPRAYED ON FIELD
A gymnasium full of upset parents questioned board members and the state officials for almost three hours, voicing outrage that they had not been notified about the incident earlier, raising questions about the safety of the herbicide (Eraser) that was sprayed on the field while children were present, asking board members why a contractor's bid that spelled out that herbicides would be used was ever okayed.
Parents asked state officials about the results of soil testing on the field and on the adjoining playground, asking specifically about other ingredients in the Eraser (besides Glyphosate) known as surfactants. Those ingredients, suggested several parents who had researched them, are carcinogenic and dangerous to children.
Cary Giguere, agrichemical management section chief for the Vermont Department of Agriculture, said soil levels for other ingredients could not be tested for until the proprietary blend of ingredients was received from the manufacturer of Eraser. He and Annie McMillan from the state department of health told parents that Glyphosate is safe and is non-toxic.
RESPIRATORY DISTRESS, RASHES
Parents discussed respiratory distress in students as well as rashes after the spraying and were told that those were short-term effects of exposure that did not have long-term consequences for children's health or development.
Wes Lowe, a parent, asked the board if the Buckley Corporation had the proper certification to apply herbicides and Giguere said that they did not have state certification and that his division had launched an investigation in the company's practices.
"We learned after the fact that they are not licensed and this is a matter of state oversight," said school board chair Missy Siner Shea.
"Did the school board know that they were going to apply herbicides to the field? Why weren't parents notified that it was going to happen?" asked one parent.
REVISED BID PROCESS
"No, the board did not understand the process. We are not saying it was good thing, we were not aware that it was going to happen and we've now tightened up and revised our bid review process," Shea said.
"Why, in this day and age, would you ever choose to use an herbicide on a field next to a school and, in this case, an herbicide that was not needed?" asked parent Sue Brownlee.
"The language in the bid talked about applying an herbicide and grass killer. When I saw that, my impulse was not to red flag it," explained board member Rob Williams.
"A lot of people looked at the bids and didn't notice that. I, for one, did not pick that up. I saw it and thought it was going to be spot weeding. A lot of people looked at that and didn't catch it," school Principal Richard Schattman said.
School parent Kristy Wimble asked the board about why parents were not notified about the exposure or the spraying.
"I've had several discussions with the board and Richard Schattman about this. If this stuff is so safe, why was there no discussion with parents about what happened and why were parents not notified after the school found out that Buckley was not certified and that kids had been exposed?" Wimble asked.
"My son developed a rash and two other kids were affected. One developed a sty on his eye and one had a rash on his front and back and he was outside without a shirt on that day. My doctor said no spraying should have been done with children present," Wimble continued.
Giguere said that spraying should not have occurred with children present and said that there should have been a 24-hour advance notification as well as signage after the spraying indicating the field had been sprayed and the herbicide identified.
"In terms of children's health, would it have been better for parents to know immediately after the spraying and exposure so they could have informed the doctors?" asked parent Scott Kingsbury of McMillan.
WASHING SKIN, FLUSHING EYES
She said that either way the proscribed action would have been washing skin and flushing eyes.
Parent Bill Curley asked Schattman and the board who was responsible for notifying parents and what was a reasonable amount of time for parents to have been notified.
"The short answer is that I am responsible for doing that and there's room for passing judgment on how well or poorly that was done. I'm sorry for not notifying people in a way that they felt was appropriate. After the first incident my inclination was to find out about the chemical and I found that the risk was very low. I didn't want to put out unduly alarming information. I found out on June 11 that Buckley was not licensed and that's when we kicked it into high gear and our letter went out today. Could we have gotten it out quicker? Yes," Schattman said.
FIELD OF GRASS
Parent Beth Kendrick queried the board about why the field had needed to be redone and asked why the board wanted to have only thin blade grass in the field when every lawn and field in Vermont is made up of a mix of thistle, clover, broadleaf grass and other "weeds."
Why, she asked, would the school want to create a pristine field of grass that would be impossible to maintain in that area and would likely require more pesticides to maintain?
Parent Matt Howes asked the board for an apology and Shea offered one, telling the crowd that she personally and the board collectively accepted responsibility for the problem and were deeply sorry for their role in it. She said that, as parents and community members, she and the board felt that the safety of the children is the first priority and she said she wanted to work with the community to ensure that the bid process was improved and to develop a policy on herbicides.
Others expressed a desire to move forward as well, asking the state officials about the best way to fix the field now and how to make sure that the playground soils, sandbox and equipment were safe.
The history of the incident is as follows:
In May the school board solicited and received two bids to repair and improve the soccer field. The school received a grant from the Mad River Valley Rec District for $4,752 of the work, and selected the Buckley Group's bid of $5,650, over a bid of $12,428 from Kingsbury Construction, Waitsfield. The school's portion of the project was $1,748.
The Buckley Corporation is based in Colchester. That bid stated that grass killer would be used on the soccer field, according to board member Rob Williams. The Kingsbury bid stated that no herbicides would be used.
On May 29, at 10:45 a.m., Buckley Corporation employees arrived, staked off the field and began spraying Eraser on the field. At 11:30 a.m., the school's upper unit students went out to recess. At 11:45 a.m. school personnel approached the workers and stopped the process to determine what was being sprayed. Buckley employees stated that the product was safe.
Spraying continued at the southern end of the soccer field, and at noon the lower unit students came out for recess. At the Monday night meeting, parents told of several students who ran through the soccer field before returning to the sandbox in the playground.
Between the upper and lower units playing outside, school personnel read the Materials Safety Data sheet on Eraser and its primary ingredient Glyphosate and made the decision that the product did not pose a safety hazard to children or personnel.
On June 4, Buckley Corporation employees returned at 4 p.m. and applied a second ground of Eraser while children in the afterschool program were outside.
Parents were notified, via an electronic newsletter, on June 5, that a "non-carcinogenic herbicide was sprayed on the field" but were not notified that children had been outside during both spraying episodes.
On June 8, a parent contacted board member Rob Williams with concerns about the spraying and other parents raised concerns on June 9. The matter was brought up at a June 10 morning meeting of the school board with Schattman reporting that the chemical in Eraser is "non-volatile," meaning it does not evaporate and that there is no risk to children from the product.
On June 11 Washington West Supervisory Union Superintendent Bob McNamara and Schattman suspended the field project and began a formal investigation. By June 12 two parents had withdrawn their children from the school and after an afternoon staff meeting this week's meeting was scheduled.
While parents, board members and the school continue their work towards fixing the field, the state is investigating the Buckley Corporation for at least three violations and the school has not paid the company any money, nor will it do so -- the contract has been terminated, Schattman and Shea said.
FINED BY STATE
The company applying the herbicide without state licensing failed to post a notice ahead of time, failed to post a notice afterwards and sprayed when children were present.
"They violated numerous sections of our regulations. We're still trying to determine how extensive those violations are. There may be others; there are various levels of infractions. What happens next depends a lot on their actions now. The company needs to get certified and quickly. We're also looking at all their records to determine if this has happened before and, if so, each instance is a violation in itself. Pending the results of our investigation, Buckley will be fined. Our fines are $5,000 per infraction -- and the field was treated twice. That's $10,000 without any further investigation," Giguere explained.