Noxious odors upset students, parents at Bethune Elementary _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Bad smells and faulty plumbing at the new Bethune Elementary school in Gentilly has gotten the attention of state DHH.

Noxious odors at a brand-new Orleans Parish elementary school have upset students and parents, sparked a state health investigation and raised questions about the $27.6 million facility’s construction.

Students at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary, housed at the site of the former Stuart R. Bradley School on Humanity Street in Gentilly, have dealt with a foul smell for at least four of the six months they have attended classes there.

Officials have been unable to contain the odor, to the dismay of parents who say their children have reacted strongly to it.

“My baby just came home from school, two days after Mardi Gras, and he’s complaining; he’s telling me that he had a headache at school,” Camille Blackburn said.

Schools officials said they are working to rectify the problem and that preliminary tests show the building is safe for occupancy.

The building was constructed under the city’s nearly $2 billion school facilities master plan, a multiyear construction plan jointly managed by the state-run Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish School Board. Its goal is to place every child in a new or renovated facility.

Students moved into the new, 850-student school, which is under parish School Board management in August, an event that was widely praised by School Board members and administrators.

But by October, the board had contacted the state Department of Health and Hospitals about the odor. Health officials, after an initial inspection, said Bethune’s entire plumbing system was “leaking sewerage gases,” in violation of state code. Bethune was told to fix the problem by Nov. 15.

“Failure to comply may result in the closing of the school,” a Nov. 10 letter from a DHH official to Bethune Principal Mary Haynes-Smith said.

Meanwhile, the School Board asked the environmental consulting firm Materials Management Group, the city’s Sewerage & Water Board and Bethune general contractor Landis Construction to test the air and plumbing systems.

Those tests found nothing amiss, state documents show. But they did not check for hydrogen sulfide gas, which can cause nausea, airway problems and other issues during prolonged exposure, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

State health inspectors, in a later test, found concentrations of that gas, as well as carbon monoxide in the air. The level of those gases found — 1 part per million — is “not an acute threat” but is “above what is expected in the background environment,” inspectors said Nov. 24.

The odors were concentrated in and near the girls’ locker room, the mechanical room and the kitchen, inspectors said. They recommended better ventilation for those areas and a thorough check of the school’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, among other steps.

The state was due to visit the site again Dec. 7, but officials could not say Thursday what the results of that follow-up check were.

Two months later, the School Board still has not determined the source of the problem.

“The Orleans Parish School Board’s work to identify and remediate the source of intermittent odor at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School is active and ongoing,” Chief Administrative Officer Michelle Blouin-Williams said Thursday, adding that the board will “make every effort to identify the source of the intermittent odor” and implement building and ventilation system changes as the state recommended.

Materials Management Group is due back at the school next week for five days of air monitoring, Blouin-Williams said.

Blackburn and some other parents said the School Board was slow to notify parents about the issue. Although officials found out about the odors in October, the parents said they weren’t contacted until February, in an early afternoon meeting held with little advance notice.

School Board officials would not say how they informed parents.

“I wish they would have contacted parents immediately and not waited three months,” Blackburn said. “Be upfront.”

Blackburn said the smell was still present in the building this week.