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Morgan Hill
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September 30, 2023

School board approves cleanup plan for Borello school site

Impassioned and well-versed residents, board of education trustees and district officials generated conflicting views and a few intense moments at an Aug. 18 special meeting to determine the future of a 9-acre plot of land in northeast Morgan Hill.
About two hours into Friday night’s debate on whether to dig up and remove pesticide-riddled dirt in the former orchard to make way for a new elementary school, Morgan Hill Unified School District’s seven-member board had heard enough.
In consecutive 4-3 votes, the school board moved forward with the district’s off-haul remediation plan—which is still waiting on final approval from the State Department of Toxic Substances—and a $1.7 million construction contract to do the work—which was awarded to Seward L. Schreber Construction. The offhauling will begin once the district receives the goahead from DTSC.
“I’d feel comfortable sending my kids to a school built on that site,” said Board Vice President Tom Arnett, who seemed to be wrestling with his vote as he spoke about risk factors in everyday life and wanting to build trust between the district and the community before breaking ground. “I worry that (by moving forward without 100 percent support) we do damage to our greater purpose of serving the community.”
Arnett joined Board President Donna Ruebusch and Trustees Ron Woolf and Mary Patterson in supporting district staff’s recommendation to build a ninth primary school, which will be named “S.G. Borello Elementary” in honor of the donating family.
“This is not an easy issue. This is not something that we have taken lightly,” Arnett said.
Arnett’s candid comments came on the tail end of what was another in a series of heated exchanges between school board members, neighboring residents to the Peet Road-Mission Avenida parcel and district staff since remediation proposals and the months-long approval process began to roll in on the new school project.
Stakeholders became introduced and studied up on such terminology as dieldrin (a harmful, banned agricultural pesticide found at high levels within the soil on the 9-acre site); remediation (the process in cleaning up contaminated sites); Removal Action Workplan and Mitigated Negative Declaration (in MHUSD’s case, an off-haul of about 19,593 cubic yards of toxic soil)).
Pair of trustees oppose district’s remediation option
Trustees David Gerard and Gino Borgioli vehemently rejected the district’s cleanup plan and attempted to discredit the state agency tasked to oversee the remediation. A much less vocal Trustee Teresa Murillo was also against the plan.
“I warn you, you will live to regret it if you move forward with this,” said Gerard, who called the offhaul method a “quick and dirty route” to take in fixing the problem. He preferred the district go with bioremediation, an alternative cleansing option that involves the use of organisms to neutralize toxins in the soil. “We need to re-look at what we’re doing here.”
Gerard’s accusation that DTSC was under pressure from district staff to approve the RAW since they were on “a project schedule that was very aggressive” drew an immediate and forthcoming response from Superintendent Steve Betando.
“Actually, that’s not true,” said Betando in rebuttal. “I’m making the recommendation. We had a choice to make it an off-haul or bioremediation, and that’s my recommendation.”
Betando explained that Gerard’s choice of “bioremediation” was used on the Peet Road site a decade earlier and the Dieldrin levels mysteriously rebounded years after the property was given a safe declaration from DTSC. Unproven theories of how that happened include the land was used again for farming and sprayed with the same pesticide; construction workers building nearby housing pushed contaminated dirt onto the vacant field; or earthworms in the soil carried the Dieldrin up from deeper depths, according to differing accounts.
Offhaul is chosen method of school districts state-wide
Casino Fajardo, MHUSD’s Director of Construction and Modernization and Live Oak High School alumnus, added that every public school project within the state that required some level of soil remediation used the same off-haul method. Fajardo said off-hauling is the “quicker (and) safer” way to do it.
“I could not find one school in California that did any kind of bioremediation on their campus,” said Fajardo, who also provided answers to other questions posed by trustees at previous meetings on the subject.
As part of the MND, district and state staff answered inquiries from individuals and agencies such as the City of Morgan Hill and Santa Clara Valley Water District. There were concerns over increased traffic and impacts on U.S. 101/Cochrane Road on-ramps; impacts of a high-voltage power transmission line and high-pressure water line on the Coyote Pump Plant; impacts to Tribal Cultural Resources; and possible flooding from Anderson Dam.
Borgioli’s specific beef was with how the off-haul method would be carried out and how that could possibly endanger the health of nearby residents if the Dieldrin became airborne. Borgioli did not trust DTSC or the onsite workers with adequately monitoring the dust particles to prevent that from happening. He also believed that more dust particle monitors were necessary than currently in the RAW and that bioremediation was the safer option.
“Dieldrin is going to come back if you do off-haul,” Borgioli said. “The only solution is bioremediation.”
At one point in the meeting, a nearby resident and father of three children, frustrated with the proceedings, spoke up that he was selling his house and moving away because of everything that was uncovered during the site assessment. Other neighbors of the surrounding developments, such as Alicante, spoke up against the district plan during the Aug. 18 meeting. They also stuck around for the board discussion and vote.
“The draft RAW and MND are incomplete, filled with inaccuracies and, in the end, not sufficiently protecting the health and safety of our community,” resident Claudia Cibrian said. “Believe me, I would love to be able to walk my kids to school, but not at this cost and this many inherent risks.”
As part of the roughly 45-day cleanup plan, the dirt will be wetted down before being loaded onto trucks so it won’t create dust. In addition, dust monitors will be set up along the perimeter of the property and an alarm will go off with any visible dust detected in the air. The truck beds will be covered when transporting the soil to the Kirby Canyon Landfill Management Facility (910 Coyote Creek Golf Drive) for disposal.
Construction of the new $20-$30 million school is estimated to take 490 days immediately following the off-hauling, through February 2019. The contract approved Aug. 18 was only for the soil cleanup and not for the school design/construction. The new school will be funded through the $198 million Measure G capital improvements bond along with developer fees.

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