People aren’t allowed to live on, or drink the groundwater from, the specific tract of land in South Charleston where BridgeValley Community and Technical College’s main building is located.
That’s according to West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection employees’ Friday presentation to the college’s Board of Governors. The two employees said the city provides potable water to Building 2000, which houses the school.
No new occupied buildings may be built on the part of a separate land tract that hosts Building 2000’s front parking lot, they said. They said this is to avoid potential vapor build-ups.
The building is in the West Virginia Regional Technology Park. Dow Chemical Co. created the park, and it has contaminants in landfills that have been covered over.
However, the two DEP employees strongly declared that the land is safe for the community college, its students and its employees, based on the amount of time they spend there.
“As long as they’re not there more than 250 days a year at 8 hours a day, they are perfectly safe,” said Ross Brittain, an environmental toxicologist with the department’s Office of Environmental Remediation. “As long as they’re not exceeding that significantly, then they’re going to be just fine.”
He said this maximum recommended exposure level is based on the default for commercial and industrial workers.
Brittain said he would be more concerned if there were a day care, K-12 school or retirement community on the property.
“While they’re not there necessarily 24 hours a day, we still consider them at the same threshold of a resident because they tend to be very sensitive receptors,” he said. “Children and our elderly are the most susceptible to potential contamination.”
He said “usually, the issues with a site like this, for indoors, vapor intrusion is the only significant exposure pathway that might even be possible.” He also said “the soil contamination was very minimal in that area, so your outdoor workers are fine, as well.”
“From a potential vapor intrusion standpoint, the primary contaminant that has known, very high toxicity was benzene, and it was safe 10 years ago,” he said. He said benzene, which can cause cancer, dissipates over time, and the area “may even be safe for residential activity by now.”
Near the end of Friday’s conversation, board member Megan Callaghan Bailey asked, “Do you feel 100% comfortable in us being able to tell our students, you know, prospective students, faculty and staff that Building 2000 is safe for them?”
“Unequivocally,” Brittain replied.
Kenan Cetin, the department’s project manager for the site for the last couple of years, said, “I absolutely feel comfortable saying that.”
Friday’s conversation occurred because, at a board meeting two weeks ago, college President Eunice Bellinger said she had concerns “regarding the safety and health of students and staff” at Building 2000.
Bellinger didn’t specify what her environmental concerns were, despite board Chairwoman Ashley Deem pressing her at that meeting for more details. Bellinger didn’t publicly stress environmental concerns, if she raised them at all, when she was publicly advocating for the college to vacate the building.
After Bellinger mentioned these concerns, the board invited the environmental protection employees to present at Friday’s meeting. After their presentation, some board members pressed Bellinger again.
“Remember, my concern was only that this be looked into, and you have looked into it and, if you’re satisfied, that was my only request,” Bellinger said.
“But, are you satisfied?” asked new Vice Chairman Mark Blankenship. “You’re the president of the college, and you said you’ve been having these conversations for years with the college community.
“Or do you have any additional information that hasn’t been gone over by these two gentlemen?” he asked.
“I have no additional information to be asked about,” Bellinger said.
But then Deem pressed Bellinger on whether she’s comfortable telling students and employees that Building 2000 is safe. Bellinger replied that “I have no ability to make that decision myself,” but Deem pressed on.
“So you do feel comfortable in alerting the faculty, staff, prospective students and students that Building 2000 is safe for them to attend?” Deem asked. Bellinger replied, “I’m on the same page with the board.”
“So your answer is yes?” Deem asked.
“Ms. Deem, I don’t think I need to answer a yes or no,” Bellinger said. “This isn’t a court of law and I’ve told you repeatedly that, if this is what the board wants to do, then I support the board.”
Deem wasn’t part of the board when it first hired Bellinger or when it extended her contract. Last month, the West Virginia Senate confirmed five new appointees of Gov. Jim Justice to the now-11-member board, and the new version of the board picked Deem to replace the chairwoman who hadn’t been reappointed.
The college’s full-time, nonadministrative faculty held a no-confidence vote last week on Bellinger, with a majority of those voting expressing no confidence in her. Afterward, the board seized ultimate oversight over personnel from Bellinger, citing faculty concerns about possible retaliation.
The board held a 1-hour, 40-minute closed session Friday, after which members emerged and, in voice votes with no dissent, passed several motions. One motion requires Bellinger to submit a plan, by the end of next week, to address the no-confidence vote.
Another motion approved a forthcoming public statement to convey the safety of the school.