Park City • The Park City School District is facing a hefty bill for soil cleanup behind Treasure Mountain Junior High, a public school for eighth and ninth graders. But the bill could have been far higher.
The work is required because the stored soil piles contain lead and arsenic from mining work in the 19th century. Like much of downtown Park City, the piles are in an area governed by environmental codes regarding handling and storage.
Exposure to lead and arsenic has long been known to adversely affect health; arsenic has been linked to heart disease and some cancers, and lead ingestion, especially for preschool-aged children, can impair growth and development.
School district Chief Operating Officer Mike Tanner told the Park City Board of Education during its regular meeting August 15 that if soil testing determined the piles qualified as ‘hazardous,’ it could cost $13 million to properly dispose of them.
The district now estimates it will cost $3 million or more, thanks to a notification from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (or DEQ), which informed the district this week that while one area qualified as hazardous, the rest was merely contaminated.
“Results from comprehensive testing conducted in July show that all material in the soil piles contains lead and arsenic above the Park City Ordinance and Environmental Covenant Screening Levels,” said DEQ spokeswoman Ashley Sumner.
While the soil still has to be removed, Sumner said the DEQ, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control determined the piles qualify for what’s called an exemption under the Bevill Amendment. The amendment to federal hazardous waste handling law allows for leeway in disposing of some categories of waste, like mining contaminants. Using the exemption lets the district dispose of the soil at any solid waste facility willing to take it.
District officials have assured the community the area is safe and current construction is following best practices.
Contractors began forming the piles in 2017 during construction work; they’ve been added to since then during subsequent projects. State code requires piles that have been in place for more than 90 days to be inspected and approved by the Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control before they can legally be stored longer.
In 2022, a contractor working at the site contacted the DEQ with concerns about the piles, prompting an inspection and review of the piles’ history followed by an action plan the environmental agencies oversee.
Also last fall, the district temporarily closed the McPolin Elementary School preschool playground, next to the junior high, amid concern about the potential of airborne contaminants in dust from the piles.
Storing piles on site violates multiple codes and they should have been removed long ago, the environmental agencies said in letters it sent to the district last December.
Environmental concerns over the piles and a cost estimate for removal were included in a 2019 district master plan. Internal emails also show district and city employees discussed the need to remove the piles in 2021.
So why are they still there?
A district spokesperson declined to comment on why the piles haven’t been removed, saying they preferred to look ahead and “we’ve refrained from assigning blame.”
“Our admin team is in charge of educating 4,600 children and supervising around 800 employees whose job it is to do the same,” said school board President Andrew Caplan. “They are also called upon to manage quite a few facilities which is a secondary responsibility to education. Because this is not their expertise they do the best they can with their knowledge and limited bandwidth.”
Tanner and Caplan both said district officials likely didn’t know removal was required due to staff turnover soon after local, state and federal officials signed a covenant governing the land.
Former business administrator Todd Hauber, who oversaw the district’s budget and finances and reported to the school board, signed the covenant in December 2016, then remained at PCSD for more than six years. He left PCSD in late 2022 and now works as business administrator for Granite School District. Hauber didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The district has proposed a $124 million budget for the coming year. Its construction work is being funded in part by a $79 million bond voters overwhelmingly passed in November of 2021. It also raised property taxes this month, a move estimated to generate $14 million officials say will mostly go toward funding an employee cost of living adjustment.
Tanner told the school board the district is looking into grants and possible government assistance to help pay for the soil removal.
Michelle Deininger is a journalist who previously worked for NPR affiliate KPCW in Park City and Visalia Times-Delta in California.
Clarification: this story was updated to provide additional detail regarding how long piles can be stored.