Wake County may build high school on hazardous waste site

The former Corning Glass Works, that could become a future Wake County high school in Raleigh, NC on Wednesday. The Wake County school board has agreed to buy the property for $4.5 million.
The former Corning Glass Works, that could become a future Wake County high school in Raleigh, NC on Wednesday. The Wake County school board has agreed to buy the property for $4.5 million.

A Wake County high school could be built on land in northeast Raleigh once occupied by an industrial plant, acreage that’s on both state and federal hazardous waste site lists.

The Wake County school board agreed Tuesday to offer $4.5 million for the 32.55-acre former Corning Glass Works site at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and New Hope Church Road. The former capacitor plant, which left behind potentially hazardous compounds, is an inactive EPA Superfund site and on the N.C. Department of Natural Resources’ inactive hazardous waste sites list. That means federal regulators no longer monitor the site, although state environmental officials require regular testing for potential groundwater contamination.

Joe Desormeaux, Wake’s assistant superintendent for facilities, said the district’s initial review indicates the site is worth exploring for a school. He said additional environmental reviews to see if the site is unsafe will take place before the deal is finalized.

The previous owners, Corning Inc. and AVX Corp., did not respond to requests for comments.

Desormeaux said school officials realize the site is not typical or ideal for a new school. But he said it’s a sign of the challenges administrators face finding sites for new schools as growth and development rapidly overtake the county.

“All of our sites are going to be harder and more unique moving on,” Desormeaux said. “That’s part of the issue we’re talking about. All the nice flat easy sites are gone now. Every site will have its own issues.”

Historically Wake has built high schools on 60-acre sites, middle schools on 30 acres and elementary schools on 20-acre parcels. But Desormeaux said the system will have to consider smaller sites such as the Corning Glass Works plant.

The size of the Corning site means it may not be the traditional Wake high school with more than 2,000 students. Desormeaux said it’s too soon to say what the program would be like at the school, which has no opening date yet.

“It will be a unique high school,” he said. “You take advantage of what you’ve got.”

The school district has also typically looked for undeveloped properties for school sites. Rarely has the district reused existing buildings, such as industrial sites, supermarkets and movie theaters.

Desormeaux said enrollment projections for the eastern Raleigh and western Knightdale area show a need to buy a site now for a future high school.

The Corning Glass Works plant is located on the edge of the district’s target circle for a new school in that part of the county. The area had far less development around it when the plant opened in 1963.

In 1987, Corning sold its capacitor operations – including its Raleigh plant – to AVX. But a few years ago, South Carolina-based AVX shut down the Raleigh plant. The site was put on the market.

Over time, environmental concerns were raised with the site, which was placed in the 1980s on the EPA Superfund list, meaning it was eligible to receive federal funding for cleanup of hazardous materials. After an assessment was completed, it was put on the Superfund archive list in 1989 with no further remedial action planned under the program.

But the site has annually remained on the state’s inactive hazardous waste sites priority list, which identifies sites where uncontrolled disposal, spills or release of hazardous waste may have been present.

The Corning plant has been monitored by the state since 1992 when efforts began to clean groundwater contaminated by industrial solvents such as trichloroethylene and volatile organics – compounds that can cause respiratory or other health issues – that were used at the site.

Corning is negotiating with the state about entering into a new agreement to privately repair environmental damage at the site. Jay Bennett, a senior project managerfor AMEC Foster Wheeler, which tests the groundwater for the site, said the remediation agreement would cover 11 acres of the property.

Wake’s contract includes some safeguards for the district, including provisions for:

▪ A Phase I environmental report to be due within 90 days of closing;

▪ AVX to reimburse Wake up to $500,000 for the costs of repairing any environmental issues for 60 months after closing;

▪ Wake only to relieve the seller of liability if the site receives brownfield status, which could entitle it to tax credits to cover the cost of remediation. According to the EPA, brownfields are abandoned, idled or underused industrial and commercial properties where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination.

Desormeaux said that if no issues are found, the deal will go to the Wake County Board of Commissioners for approval. School board Chairwoman Christine Kushner said the community should be assured that the school system won’t go ahead with the deal unless it’s sure the site is safe.

“The safety of our students is absolutely our first priority,” Kushner said.

News researcher Teresa Leonard contributed to this report.

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