HOLMBERG: Would wealthier Richmonders let their children attend a ‘toxic’ school?

Posted at 11:46 PM, Jan 21, 2013
and last updated 2013-01-23 00:43:45-05

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR)--Some things are certain: death, taxes--and protests about methane gas at Albert V. Norrell Elementary School in the North Side of Richmond.

“Formaldehyde is the last thing we found,” said one of the organizers of Monday night’s flashlight protest outside of the Fendall Avenue school. “Yes, they say you can find that anywhere, but who wants to send their child into a room with formaldehyde?”

About 25 protestors gathered, including Roxie Raines Allison.

“It’s on a dump,” she said. “And we all know what that means if it’s on a dump. That there are fumes coming into the building.”

Concerns, protests and complaints about dangerous methane gas at Norrell Elementary have been going on for the better part of a generation. The school was built in 1963 on Fendall Avenue at the edge of the old Fells Street landfill. It opened in 1964. The landfill continued being used until the early 1980s.

Test after test showing the school is safe has done little to clear the air at the school named after a beloved Philadelphia priest from Richmond.

City Council Vice President Ellen Robertson (6th District) came to the protest and read the list of testing agencies that have deemed the school completely safe.

“Not one of these people are parents of any of the children that attend this school,” Roberston said, nodding to the protestors.  “I walked the line, and I talked to them. I asked them what were their concerns. They have concerns, but none of them are validated.”

A similar string of protests in 2001 were carried out by concerned folks who also didn’t have any children attending the school, speaking up for the impoverished parents of the children at the school.

There’s no doubt the school was built on the edge of the city landfill in 1964. During certain weather conditions you can detect  a sewer smell in the area, but it’s not coming from the old landfill, but the big sewer lines that run right underneath the Battery Park courts.

When one of those sewer lines failed during Tropical Storm Ernesto, the whole basin flooded with water and sewage, closing the school six years ago.

It has been spruced up, found to be environmentally safe and will serve as a pre-school center until the new one is finished at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, in two years.

But that hasn’t cleared the air there for protestors. It seems nothing will.

It’s like Norrell is haunted, not with ghosts, but fears - fears that the children of the poorest citizens, the most disenfranchised, are being housed in a building that would be seen as fit for the children of the more affluent citizens.

“I tell you what, let the school board set their houses up in here,” said protestor Roy Bryant, “and let the kids go to the school board” building.

“Why did they pick children from our projects to come here?” asked Maxie Raines Allison. “They didn’t pick children from affluent families, who wouldn’t stand for this. Not one second.”

Robertson said it’s simply the feeder area where these pre-schoolers are coming from.

But the protestors ask an interesting question: Would the parents from the West End want their children to go to a school as haunted as this one? My guess is, probably not.

That’s my view on this haunting situation. Please leave yours here.