LEROY, N.Y., February 2 – School officials who say environmental factors can’t be responsible for the outbreak of tics at the Junior/Senior High School might want to check last year’s record rainfalls – and the flood-prone ground right under their feet.
The tics broke out after an unusual pattern of heavy rain, followed by a mild winter that has kept the ground from freezing and left lots of standing water at Leroy Junior/Senior High School.
That should be no surprise. Part of the school grounds -- including athletic fields -- are right on top of a federally designated FEMA Flood Hazard Area. While a county official told us that the school itself sits on a slope just above the hazard area, the zone cuts right across the girls’ softball diamond, as well as the football/track field and another, larger baseball field.
In fact, we’ve been told by local residents that some fields, including the girls’ softball field just built in 2009, had to be dug up and rebuilt within the last year because the ground was so wet. The building itself has not escaped water and structural woes – the gym could not be used when the school was first opened a few years back because the floor buckled and sank, and the opening of school was delayed one year for a week by flooding, according to a former student.
School officials won’t comment, but Superintendent Kim M. Cox issued a new statement Wednesday, mostly blasting national press attention and the involvement of famed advocate Erin Brockovich, who has cited a train derailment of hazardous material a few miles from town in 1970 as a likely cause. Cox said new tests have shown drinking water inside the school – which comes from neighboring Monroe County – is safe.
Citing state and federal experts, she said: “All of these agencies and professionals from these agencies have assured us that our school is safe. There is no evidence of an environmental or infectious cause. Environmental causes would not discriminate. We would see a wide range of people affected.”
But no one seems to be looking up at the sky or down at the ground. LeRoy, like other New York state and Northeastern U.S. locations, has seen an epic amount of rain during the past 12 months. We put this chart together to show 2011 rainfall versus normal amounts in Buffalo and Rochester. LeRoy is located between them.
Wednesday, in response to our request under the Freedom of Information Act, the school provided its record of pesticide use in 2011. It showed Ortho Home Defense Max and Ace Wasp and Hornet Killer had been sprayed in several areas.
Beyond checking the pesticide logs, the first round of tests that led officials to assert “the school is safe” were only done indoors. A visual inspection of the school we conducted on Wednesday showed standing water in several areas.
At least one of those areas appears to be a detention basin where water is designed to accumulate. New York state law requires such basins on all construction projects of an acre or more. But there was ponding water all over the place, including a ditch with cattails.
The issue of water on the school grounds has come up several times since the tics outbreak was first reported, raised by local residents familiar with the school’s history. They’ve described the area as “a swamp.” The Batavian, a local online newspaper, attempted Wednesday to knock down that idea with a photograph of the site under construction that showed a smooth, dry foundation.
“Rumor: The school was built on a swamp. Apparently false. Aerial maps going back to 1938 show the area of the school is flat and dry.”
That, of course, would only show the above ground condition of the land at the time the photograph was taken. In fact, a 1954 photo shows extensive tiling just next to the current girls’ baseball field. Tiling – generally clay pipe located just beneath the surface -- is used to drain farmland and allow crops to grow during the rainy spring planting season. A county official we spoke with said it’s an open question whether clay pipes that old would still be in place or functioning. The tiling is visible as light straight lines – including three that are horizontal and closely spaced -- in this photo:
The school’s location raises question for another reason. We’re told that village lawyer Robert Fussell, who owns several hundred acres of land inside the village limits, offered to donate land for the new school when a site was being considered in 2000. He stood up at a school board meeting and made the offer, stipulating only that he wanted to help create “an attractive building.” Fussell, a longtime environmentalist, was opposed to a school being built outside the village; he wanted to let kids walk to school and also to avoid urban sprawl, believing farmland should be preserved in the Town of Leroy outside the village. This is a map of Fussell’s holdings in the village, all the area within green lines.
School board officials never took Fussell up on his offer or even initiated a conversation about it with him. Instead, he later learned second-hand that the school board bought land -- outside the village limits -- from the mother and brother of the then-school board president. According to county records, the district paid $108,000 for that land on October 20, 2000.
The new Junior/Senior High School replaced one on Main Street in downtown LeRoy, a large and handsome building that now houses the school district offices and other non-school related operations. It is hard by, but well above, the Oatka Creek into which runoff from the new school site would eventually drain.
According to several locals we spoke with, the new school resulted from a push by New York State to build schools in small localities – according to one account, the state paid 90 percent and the local districts only the remaining 10. That proved irresistible to many districts including LeRoy. One man we spoke to said there was no compelling need for a new middle and high school complex – a new high school would have been justified, at most. The new Junior/Senior Middle School houses seventh through twelfth grade.
But now, with a bad economy and the recent bankruptcy of Kodak – LeRoy has long been a pleasant bedroom community for Rochester – school enrollment is declining and officials are left with managing dwindling tax revenues.
Housing prices have been hit as well. With the rain, the Kodak bankruptcy, the strange winter, and now the outbreak of illness at the high school, this has not been a good season for LeRoy.
Dan Olmsted is Editor and Mark Blaxill Editor-at-Large of Age of Autism.com. They are co-authors of “The Age of Autism – Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-Made Epidemic,” published in paperback last September by Thomas Dunne Books.