Remedy for school oil spill is expensive and necessary

Thu, 09/26/2019 - 5:15pm
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There was both good news and bad news about the Block Island School building at the New Shoreham School Committee’s Sept. 16 meeting.

The good news: The committee unanimously awarded the contract for the long-planned façade renovation to Pariseault Builders, the low bidder. No asbestos was found in the dust that was kicked up when the middle school science room’s floor was repaired. And the cause of the heating oil spill in March 2019 has been found and a solution presented to the committee.

The bad news: The recommended fix, replacing electronic controls for the pumps and valves that supply fuel oil to the school’s heating system, is an unplanned expense that can’t be avoided or postponed with cold weather coming. The School Committee approved the spending, although manufacturing and installing the new equipment could use almost all of the building maintenance budget for the entire school year.

The price for building and starting up the new control systems is $8,238, according to the proposal received only hours before the meeting from Preferred Utilities Manufacturing Corp. of Danbury, Conn., the manufacturer of the pump and its controls. Installation of the new electrical components, plus some plumbing, is not included in that amount, and would be done by other contractors. After the installation, a Preferred Utilities technician would return to start the new fuel supply system and train town or school personnel to operate it. Building the components alone could take 12 weeks after the order is placed.

The town’s facilities manager, Sam Bird, told the committee the total cost of the project — equipment, installation, and startup — could reach $20,000. The line item for building maintenance in the 2019-2020 school budget is $21,000, Finance Director Melanie Reeves told the committee.

Bird said that he had met Preferred’s technician at the school and “brainstormed” scenarios to explain why the heating fuel spilled out a vent pipe to the school’s roof and then onto the ground below, near the playground behind the school’s south wing. Even more puzzling, the spill stopped on its own.

“It was not an easy diagnosis, actually,” Bird said. The culprit, they realized, was a check valve in the fuel supply piping that did not open to send the oil back to the main tank after an electronic control unit failed. “The valve had not opened, or had not had a reason to open, for years,” Bird said. With the valve stuck shut, the pump still pumping and the return line closed off, the oil had nowhere else to go except out the roof vent. After a few minutes the valve opened, the fuel flowed back to its tank and no more oil spilled from the vent.

According to Bird, Preferred Utilities quoted replacement of almost the entire fuel system and its electronic control modules for over $33,000, including removing the “day tanks” that Bird had filled every day with enough oil to keep the boiler running for the rest of the heating season. The second alternative would have replaced controls for the fuel system and its pumps, for $13,000. That version would have kept the day tanks and their roof vents, meaning “the oil system has a hole,” Bird said. “I would prefer a sealed system.” The revised quote for $8,238 that Bird recommended would replace the fuel system’s controls only and bypass the day tanks with new piping to create a closed system, preventing the same kind of spill from recurring. He added that none of the company’s quotes included installation of the components. 

Superintendent Michael Convery agreed with Bird’s recommendation to accept the revised quote, but Committee members were perturbed by the options and the rush to decide between them. Bird confirmed for Chair William Padien that the company would supply equipment and materials only,  with installation being an extra cost to the school. Member Persephone Brown was concerned that even with the new controls, there would be no way to check or service the fuel supply lines.

“We can’t do nothing,” Padien said, even though all realized this repair could exceed the maintenance budget for the year. 

The motion to authorize the Superintendent to contract for purchase of the new fuel oil control system based on the latest quote passed unanimously.

Façade contractor “very anxious” to do job

Bird’s other presentation to the School Committee was a happier one. Three bids were submitted for the renovation to the façade on the oldest part of the school building, a project that had been talked about for years.

The base bid price by Providence’s Maron Construction Co., Inc. was $308,900. Mill City Construction, Inc. of Lincoln, R.I. bid $227,701. Pariseault Builders of Warwick, R.I., was the low bidder at $199,600, and Bird’s recommended choice.

Bird noted that Pariseault won the contract to build the five homes in the Block Island Housing Board’s Cherry Hill Lane affordable housing development off Cooneymus Road, and has recently started the work. Having crews on the island already for that project allowed Pariseault “to build that efficiency into their bid,” he said.

The company is “very anxious” to take on the façade renovation, Bird said, adding that they “come very well recommended.”

Padien pointed out that the state Department of Education (RIDE) will reimburse the school district for a portion of the renovation after the work is completed.

With little more discussion, the committee unanimously approved the award to Pariseault Builders.

No asbestos found in floor

Superintendent Convery reported that “almost immediately after our last meeting” on August 19, he was “informed that the dust distributed during the floor repair in the science room may be toxic.” He called an environmental consulting company he had worked with while he was superintendent for Coventry Public Schools. “I just went ahead.”

Five samples were taken on Aug. 20 and tested for asbestos – a “rush” job. The report came back Aug. 21. All samples tested negative for asbestos content.

Personnel changes and fundraising policy

In other actions, the School Committee approved a new policy governing fundraising by school districts and organizations supporting school activities. Convery explained that the text was slightly modified from a model policy developed by the state’s association of school superintendents after RIDE issued guidance to districts last spring on student and parent participation in fundraising activities.

The committee reappointed physical therapist Pat O’Leary to her position, one month after accepting her resignation. Special Education Director Dr. Mark Hawk had asked Block Island Health Services if they could provide the needed services. But Convery said Hawk found that they could not do so, and that the district would be out of compliance with state requirements without physical therapy services. Convery added that O’Leary’s reappointment will be temporary, “until we can find someone else.”

The committee also appointed Kathleen Hemingway as as a middle school social studies teacher, and appointed five coaches for the soccer and volleyball teams. There is still a vacancy for a middle school soccer team assistant coach.