WHITEHALL, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Now nearly two months after taking black water damage during an August storm, Whitehall High School still remains unusable. This week, while work with their insurer remains a struggle, the district got an answer on how long it may take before students can come back to the halls again.
In an update meeting this week, the district’s Buildings and Grounds Committee, Clerk of the Works, school architects and an environmental specialist met to get an assessment of how long it would take for the school to be usable again.
The repairs are estimated to take until at least March to complete. Black water from the school’s septic system spread to every part of the school in August, in amounts of an inch in some spaces and as much as several feet in others.
“From a health and wellness standpoint, we cannot have students safely in the building as abatement work progresses,” wrote Superintendent Patrick Dee in a release Thursday. “As such, we hope to be able to have a partial reopening of the High School facility at some point during March.”
Extensive abatement is needed for asbestos floor tiles that have been exposed in numerous classrooms. Mold growth will need to be dealt with as well, having developed in areas like the school gymnasium in the time since the damage occurred.
Damage also took place in areas of the school that were undergoing renovation. New walls will have to be broken through to see if more mold is growing inside.
Dee laid out the asbestos remediation and repair process in Thursday’s update. Containment barriers will be set up by school wing, each with continuous air monitoring throughout the process. Once abatement is complete in a wing of the school, the air quality will be tested for any remaining asbestos or other contaminants. Only once cleared by that test can contractors get in and start restoration.
“While I certainly recognize that this is not the news that any of us were hoping for; it is imperative that we protect the health and safety of our students and staff,” Dee wrote. “We simply cannot permit students in the facility until it is deemed a safe and healthy building by our environmental consultants.”
The question of cost
Dee also brought up work with the school’s insurance carrier, New York School Insurance Reciprocal (NYSIR), calling the process a “struggle.”
“Lastly, we continue to struggle with (NYSIR),” he wrote. “We will continue to aggressively seek the coverage to which the school is entitled and we, as well as our experts firmly believe we possess.”
Earlier this month, NYSIR denied most of Whitehall CSD’s insurance claim, classifying the damage as flooding, rather than as septic, despite the fact that the septic water in the school was what caused the damage.
Dee said at that time that the district had every intention of fighting that determination, especially as the estimated $10 to $16 million in repairs would otherwise fall onto Whitehall taxpayers.
In Thursday’s update, Dee said the district had received approval to litigate the determination in a court of law, should it come to that. They are currently interviewing law firms to aid them in that process.
“The Whitehall Central School District will NOT stand by and allow the insurance carrier to dictate what they will cover based on their narrow interpretation of the policy,” Dee wrote. “In the meantime, the district is developing contingency plans to utilize reserves, fund balance as well as building project dollars to complete the work necessary to allow our students to return to school.”
In communication with News 10 ABC last month, NYSIR representatives said they felt communication was progressing with the district. They did not acknowledge claims that they had gone silent for several weeks in September after promising the district an answer on coverage within 48 hours. of a mid-September meeting.
NYSIR has been reached out to for comment.
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