Environmental Justice Case Study:
Beard Elementary School Sitting on Contaminated Property
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The view out of the car window as one heads toward Beard Elementary school in Detroit can hardly be called scenic. From Chrysler Freeway, one can see heavy industrial plants stretch into southwest Detroit. Within all of this ugliness sits a little elementary school. Like something out of a storybook, Beard Elementary school, built in 1886, is a picturesque little red schoolhouse. When inside, the first impression is quite romantic, but after a quick tour, the building’s limitations become clear. The school has no cafeteria, a minuscule gym, and is extremely overcrowded with 563 students. However, construction for a new and better school was started in July of 2000 at 7036 Chatfield Street (Thornton, 2000). The new school is necessary because of the poor conditions in the current school. Unfortunately, the Detroit Public Schools have decided to build the new school on property contaminated with lead, arsenic, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), benzo(a)pyrene, and trichloroethylene (Thornton, 2000).
The sitting of Beard Elementary school on contaminated soil is an especially difficult environmental justice case. Those who will bear the brunt of the harm from the toxic chemicals in the soil are low-income children of color. There are regulations in Michigan for the redevelopment of brownfields for commercial purposes, but not for the construction of schools. There are also regulations for the amount of chemicals in the soil that are dangerous to human health. However, these regulations were set up for the protection of adults rather than children. Therefore, the Due Care clean up procedures required by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality are not adequate to protect the health of the Beard Elementary School students.Back to Table of Contents
The construction site of the new Beard Elementary/Preschool has a long history of heavy industrial uses. Located on the intersection of Chatfield, Beard, and Green Streets, the 6.4 acre triangle of vacant land is in the heart of Southwest Detroit. The site is surrounded by an elevated railroad to the North and a partially vacant industrial facility to the East and is only 1/4 of a mile northwest of Chrysler Freeway, I-75. Primary occupation of the site began in 1909 by a brass foundry. The brass foundry was closed in 1918 and a variety of industrial activities sponsored by Ireland & Mathews Mfg., Aetna Steel Company, the Ohio Automobile Radiator Company, and the Wolverine Aluminum Company have taken place on the site. Each company occupied different buildings on the site in 1929. During the period between 1937 to 1950, the International Detrola Corporation operated on the property. From 1950 to1964, the U.S. Army owned and operated a tank ordinance center at the site, before donating the land to the City Board of Education, who then ran a vocational skills center and repair garage on the property from 1965 to 1981. In 1981, all of the buildings on the site were demolished. For seventeen years, the site remained vacant (Thornton, 2000; MDEQ 2002).
The Beard Elementary school neighborhood is overburdened by polluting facilities. In the two-mile radius around the school, there are a total of 58 polluting facilities (See map above). Of those 58 facilities, the majority handle hazardous waste. In the two-mile radius, there are 40 facilities handling hazardous waste, 3 facilities with toxic releases, 6 with air releases, and 9 facilities that deal with multiple types of pollutants (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2000). With the disproportionate amount of pollution in the neighborhood already, further exposure to the children as a result of the sitting of the new elementary school on contaminated soil compounds already dangerous health risks.
Beard Elementary School Site Environmental Testing
In August of 1998, the Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision (SDEV) requested that the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) supply notification on present ownership of the land. In October and December of 1998, the DPS sent extension letters to SDEV reporting that the records about the property had either been lost or destroyed (Milberg, 2000a). As a result of the previous industrial use, an environmental group, Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, requested that the abandoned site be considered for funding through the Wayne County Brownfield Authority (Thornton, 2000). In January of 1999, students from the University of Michigan conducted research on the site’s history. An environmental consultant hired by SDEV completed a review of the site history in March of 1999 and concluded that the site was contaminated with toxic compounds (Milberg, 2000b).
SDEV representatives Kathy Milberg and Juan Jose Martinez met with the DPS soon after the contamination was discovered and provided them with the site report. The DPS then gave permission to conduct Phase I and Phase II Environmental Assessments of the area for commercial reuse (Milberg, 2000a). In July and August of 1999 the Phase I and II assessments were finished for Wayne County (Thornton, 2000). After the initial Phase I and II assessments were completed for commercial reuse, the DPS decided to build the new Beard Elementary/Preschool on the site. Construction of the new school commenced in July of 2000 (Thornton, 2000). The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), requested additional testing on the site because of the previous discovery of contaminants like lead, benzo(a)pyrene, polychlorinated biphenyl’s (PCB’s), PNAs, trichloroethylene, and arsenic (Thornton, 2000).
Clean up of the Construction Site
The first round of testing at the construction site showed levels of lead, arsenic, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), trichloroethylene, and benzo(a)pyrene in the soil high enough to warrant a suggestion for clean up by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (Milberg, 2000b). The Detroit Public Schools responded with a proposal to decontaminate the site by removing one foot of soil and replacing it with four inches of crushed concrete and eight inches of new soil. The clean up cost would be relatively low: $150,000, according to Coralie Reck, a teacher at the Beard Elementary school (Reck, 2000).
MDEQ played a key role in ensuring that DPS performed a responsible cleanup of the site. In September 2000 MDEQ requested that DPS test the soil used for the berm and provide a soil disposal report for cleanup activities on the site. By October 2000 it was discovered that the berm soil was contaminated with arsenic and that a DPS subcontractor illegally dumped contaminated soil at 1835/37 Green. DPS removed the berm soil from the school property and ensured that illegally dumped soil was moved to a hazardous waste landfill. (SDEV 2002)
During this time, SDEV played an active role in ensuring that the community was well aware of the cleanup's mishaps. In October 2000 SDEV requested multiple meetings of a "Beard School Community Council" and invited DPS to attend. DPS officials came to one meeting and refused to address environmental concerns in depth. Two weeks later DPS cancelled on plans to attend the next meeting of the Council. (SDEV 2002)
On February 28, 2001 DPS found 2 underground fuel storage tanks on the school site. The tanks were removed before MDEQ had time to inspect the site. In June 2001 soil testing revealed 7 areas of high PCB contamination on the site according to the original allowable PCB levels. Soil was removed in 2 of the areas that were still considered contaminated, but the other 5 do not have soil removed due to a change in the level of the PCB contamination standard. This is a change from the original cleanup plan, which required that all 7 areas of high contamination be removed. The entire site was capped after the soil was removed. (SDEV 2002)
On July 24, 2001 in response to complaints, DPS sent a letter to SDEV agreeing to increase monitoring, provide bilingual reports on monitoring and maintenance at the site, hire an independent consultant to advise on additional testing and cleanup actions and the creation of a Citizen Advisory Committee. In response SDEV filed an Environmental Justice lawsuit attempting to stop the opening of the new school in September 2000. The Judge decided that the school would be allowed to open, but DPS must complete all the actions outlined in their July 24 letter. (Hood 2001)
The New Beard Elementary School was opened in September 2001.
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Members from the community are stuck between a rock and a hard place. It is clear to them that the new school is necessary, but many feel that the health risks to the children are too great to risk.
Detroit Public Schools (DPS) and Beard School Staff
The staff of the Beard Elementary school feels positively about the construction.
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ)
Environmental Justice Group
The new Beard elementary school construction site is only five blocks away from the old school. They are both in the zip code 48209 of southwest Detroit, and in census tract 5238 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000). The total population of the area is 5,480. Seventy-two percent of the neighborhood’s population, 3,953 people, are white, this number includes an unknown number of white-Hispanics. Blacks make up only eight percent of the area’s population (423 people), American Indian Eskimo or Aleut make up two percent (101 people), and people classified as other make up 18% of the neighborhood’s population (1,000 people). The category Hispanic on the 1990 census data for tract 5238 does not differentiate race as determined by skin color. The total Hispanic population is 1,532 people, or 28%. People who consider themselves Hispanic are incorporated into the total numbers of the other racial groups above. The total minority population of the census tract, including all of those in the racial categories classified under Hispanic is 3,056 people, or approximately 56% (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000).
Minorities are over represented in the Beard Elementary school neighborhood. Hispanics are especially over represented. As stated above, they made up 28 percent of the neighborhood, while on the whole, in the United States, Hispanics only made up 7 percent of the population (Timmer, 1994, 6). In addition to having a high proportion of people of color living in the area, the area is very low-income. The median income in the neighborhood is $15,057 a year. In fact, 42 percent of the population lives below the poverty level (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000). Nationally, 14.2 percent of the population was living under the poverty line in 1991. The median income of $15,057 is only just above the poverty level income of $13,359 that was set up by the U.S. government. Analysis suggests that the poverty level is grossly inadequate as it stands now.Back to Table of Contents
Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision (SDEV) has used many strategies to protect the children that will attend the new school. Kathy Milberg hired University of Michigan students to research the construction site’s history and requested a review of the site and funding from Wayne County Brownfield Authority (Milberg, 2000a). An environmental consultant then reviewed the site history, and the property was deemed contaminated. When SDEV found that the site was going to be used as a school rather than for industrial purposes, they began to work to educate and activate parents and community members. In mid-October 2000, approximately 25 community members attended a protest, organized by Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, to put pressure on the DPS to clean the site adequately (Mullen, 2000). In addition, the organization filled a lawsuit to ensure that DPS lived up to their stated responsibilities. (Hood 2001)Back to Table of Contents
In the second soil analysis conducted on October 25, 2000, the levels of chemicals found at the Beard Elementary School construction site were under the New York guidelines. However, the levels found in the first round of soil analysis prompted MDEQ to suggest the removal of soil from the site. Clean up guidelines call for two feet of soil to be removed and an impermeable barrier to be set between the remaining soil and the clean soil. DPS's cleanup removed only one foot of soil and placed a barrier of crushed concrete on top of the contaminated soil. (Hickey 2003)
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The Center for Health Environment and Justice (CHEJ) has been looking at the question of school sitting on contaminated grounds in their "Child Proofing Our Communities Campaign." They have draw together four basic recommendations for school sitting (Center for Health, Environment and Justice, 2000).
Recommendations for: School Sitting
1. Participation in the school site acquisition process should be available to parents, students (if are appropriate, teachers and community members.
2. Ensure precautionary approaches are taken when locating new schools, a complete site history, site visit, survey of surrounding potential sources of contamination, testing and evaluation if potential health risks to children should be part of any site proposal. When there is cause for concern, another site should be chosen.
3. When other sites are not available, and contaminated land must be used, the proposed school property should be cleaned up to standards that are protective of children.
4. No source of contamination should be located within 1000 feet of a school, day care or Head Start facility.
(Center for Health Environment and Justice, 2000)
Billie Hickey of Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision is satisfied with the clean up of the school site. She expressed concern that the contaminated soil under the barrier could still penetrate into the ground-level soil. To address this she recommended that DPS install a layer of fabric to serve as a visual marker between soil that is contaminated and that which is not. In addition, she recommended that DPS vigilantly ensure that the barrier is maintained.Back to Table of Contents
Phone Number: (313) 842-1961
Phone Number: (313) 849-3489
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Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (2002) Brownfield Site Report. Site #22: New Beard School.
Hickey, Billie. (2003 February 4) Personal Interview.
Hood, Hon. Judge Denise. (2001 August 30) Ruling. Case Number: 01-CV-72792-DT.
Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision (2003 February 4) Facsimile of timeline.
Bourseleth, C. A., & Spalding, P. J. (2000, October 24) Letter to Patricia Thornton, Project Manager, Environmental Response Division, MDEQ.
Center for Health Environment and Justice. (2000, October 23). Poisoned Schools: Invisible Threats, Visible Actions. A report of the Poisoned Schools: Child Proofing Our Communities Campaign. Draft Report.
Meeting Mess. (2000, October 4). Metrotimes.
Milberg, Kathy. (2000a, November 14). Facsimile to author.
Milberg, Kathy. (2000b, November 9). Personal Interview.
Mullen, Ann. (2000, October 10). School Duel? Metrotimes.
Reck, Coralie. (2000, November 28). Personal Interview.
Thornton, Patricia. (2000, September 27). Letter to Richard Schleyer, Project Manager, DPS.
Timmer, Doug, et al. (1994), "Understanding Homelessness: Industrial and Urban Decline."
Paths to Homelessness: Extreme Poverty and the Urban Housing Crisi, Boulder, CO:
U.S. Bureau of the Census. (2000, November 30). Population Profile–1990 Census of Population and Housing. "Census tract 5238" Internet. Available: ( ).
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2000, December 2). EPA’s EnviroMapper. Map of Beard Elementary School. Internet: Available: ( ).Back to Table of Contents