Charges that the East Penn School District violated environmental laws by burying construction waste containing asbestos near one of its elementary schools were disputed by school officials Monday night.

In the summer of 2013, several dump truck loads of construction debris — including an unknown amount of potentially-hazardous asbestos — were dumped in the woods just west of Wescosville Elementary School in Lower Macungie Township.

East Penn officials say they don’t know who dumped the material behind the school — or where it came from.

But they do know that in the autumn of 2013, unidentified school district officials authorized burying that debris in a clay-lined pit on the same site.

Accusations that the district is involved in a cover-up were made by two residents and one of the school board’s own members during Monday’s school board meeting.

“Covering up a crime is a crime in itself,” said board member Lynn Donches.
“Why don’t we want to know who dumped the waste and who buried it?”

Resident Giovanni Landi also accused the board and administration “of covering up the fact that someone in the school district committed a crime.”

“How many of you before me are complicit in this illegal act?” asked resident Chris Donatelli.

“Two crimes occurred last year,” said Landi. “The first was the illegal dumping of hazardous wastes on school grounds. The second was burying the hazardous waste instead of notifying the authorities.

“It is a felony to dump hazardous materials and it is a felony to bury hazardous materials.”

“Dumping materials that are known to be carcinogenic anywhere is an illegal act,” said Donatelli. “Burying it rather than reporting it is not an innocent act. It is a deliberate attempt to hide the fact that somebody broke the law.”

Board president Alan Earnshaw said characterizing what happened as illegal acts is “a reckless misstatement of the facts.”

And board vice president Ken Bacher requested that people not refer to illegal activities by the school district, saying it has not been established that any illegal activities have been committed by East Penn.

But Donches did not back down from her position that illegal actions were taken at the Wescosville Elementary site – and once again found herself at odds with several of her angry colleagues.

“Has some kind of warrant of arrest been filed?” asked Earnshaw. “Has an indictment been made by law enforcement officers? Has the prosecution of any acts taken place? The answer is no.

“In our society, we are innocent until proven guilty. No one has been accused of a crime. No one has been convicted of a crime.”

Said Donches: “Although there have been no charges or whatever, I do have a statement from the Department of Environmental Protection that it is unlawful to dispose of any waste at a site that does not have a DEP permit to accept such waste.”

Donches maintained the district should have contacted proper authorities when the illegal dumpsite first was discovered on school district property and before any decision was made to bury the construction debris on-site.

“I’m not interested at all in identifying who made mistakes or making this a bigger deal than it really is,” said Superintendent J. Michael Schilder.

“I’ve been assured by DEP, EPA and the asbestos management firm that there is no harm to children or any person in the area, whether it stays in the ground or whether it’s removed.

“EPA went to great lengths to tell us that they thought we were handling it perfectly appropriately and DEP said the same thing.”

Not hazardous asbestos?

Earlier this month, the school board agreed to hire ALM Abatement Services of Coopersburg to remove and properly dispose of soil and associated rubbish that has been contaminated with what is believed to be “non-friable” asbestos.

While asbestos fibers can cause cancer if inhaled, those fibers are less likely to be released in non-friable asbestos. Friable asbestos can be crumbled by hand, releasing the hazardous fibers into the air.

Ballard suggested only a small fraction of the buried debris is asbestos.