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Northport-East Norhtport school district

Northport district officials have found an alternative location for its bus depot. Photo from Close Northport MS Facebook page

At its Nov. 7 school board meeting, parents of Northport Middle School students asked school board members and school district officials, if the district did in fact have a bus depot stationed next to the school building, where 600 children attend classes. Many parents knew about the refueling station and were appalled, but many residents did not. 

“This is just alarming to me,” said Jamie Marcantonio, who said she had three children go through the school system. “We’re talking about toxicity.  How is it even possible that an affluent community like Northport is saying its okay to have a fuel station where our kids go to school.”

“This is just alarming to me.” 

Jamie Marcantonio

In response to ongoing air quality and health concerns among parents and former teachers at the Northport Middle School, and questions about the bus depot, the Times of Huntington-Northport has obtained copies of the most recent Petroleum Bulk Storage inspection for the Northport Middle School site. 

The Feb. 20, 2019 report indicates that the district is in violation of laws governing petroleum bulk storage.

During the announced inspection, though no evidence of spillage or release to environment were found, health officials were unable to confirm that the tanks’ leak detection, corrosion prevention and overfill protection systems were operating properly,  largely because the district has failed to maintain required self-inspection records for at least the last three years. 

One 4,000-gallon tank stores gasoline, another 4,000-gallon tank stores diesel fuel and a third fiberglass tank holds up to 15,000 gallons of #2 fuel oil, which is typically used for heating in furnaces and boilers.

The law essentially requires that metal tanks, piping, dispenser sumps and containment systems for petroleum storage utilize a technique to slow or stop corrosion called cathodic protection. The inspector noted in the report that operators were unaware of the requirement for cathodic protection and testing for the two 4,000-gallon metal tank dispenser sumps. 

To comply with Suffolk County Sanitary Code, the record-keeping and testing of cathodic protection must be rectified, health officials stated in a Nov. 13 email. 

The same report notes that one of the probes in the tank’s alarm system for leak detection was defective. Facility staff provided documentation to the inspector showing that they already had a work order in place to have the item repaired. 

The county requires prompt correction to violations and had provided a phone number to call to arrange for reinspection in its report to the district. But the county health department’s Office of Pollution Control states that no reinspection has been requested, despite the fact that the department followed up and sent a warning letter to the district in April. 

District officials did not return phone calls and board members did not respond to requests for interviews through email. 

In a Nov. 7 meeting, the school voted to test the soil on the site sometime this winter  to address concerns of ongoing complaints of odors and reports of diseases among students and former teachers. It’s unclear if the testing will include areas where tanks are located. 

In an email, Superintendent Robert Banzer stated that the district is in the process of forming a 13-member subcommittee. He advises all community members to visit the messaging center on its website for updates. Relocating the bus depot is an issue that the pending board of education subcommittee may decide to do,  according to Banzer.

Suffolk County Health Code states that violations are subject to fines not to exceed $2,000 for a single violation. The health department said that the matter has not gone beyond the warning letter stage. A proposed fine has not been calculated. 

Violations to the New York State Petroleum Bulk Storage regulations are subject to civil, administrative and/or criminal penalties up to $37,500 per violation per day. It’s unclear which entity enforces this law. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation directs all regulatory compliance issues for diesel fuel storage tanks to Suffolk County.  

The February 2019 inspection report also noted that the district could not prove that it had a current statement of insurance coverage to remediate spills if one would occur. The county said that most single station owners need to demonstrate $1.5 to $2 million in coverage. 

The county stated that it only reports the issue and does not enforce it.

In a last minute response to questions raised in this report, the district states that it has insurance coverage of $1 million for each occurrence for spills for the period July 1, 2019, to July 1, 2020. The coverage is also reportedly retroactive to July 1999 for the 15,000-gallon heating oil tank and to Feb. 18, 1994, for two 4,000-gallon diesel and gasoline tanks, the district stated.

Banzer stated that the district is unaware that it is in violation of laws governing petroleum bulk storage. 

The district provided a copy of its permit to operate a toxic or hazardous material storage site issued on July 1, 2019. The permit states that it is subject to compliance with provision of the Articles 12 & 18 of Suffolk County Code and 6 NYCRR Part 613.

 The Suffolk County Health Department said that it will conduct another inspection in December 2019. 

 

Community gathers at Northport Middle School for 'sickout' . Photo by Donna Deddy

On the sidewalk in front of the Northport Middle School on Thursday, Nov. 7, protesters held up signs as the morning traffic passed by.

“Answers Required,” their posters and T-shirts read.

As people shared their personal stories with reporters, it became evident that something is awry with many community members clearly lacking a peace of mind. 

As the district attempts to address all of the concerns, it’s still unclear who or what government agencies or which experts will give them all the answers to all the questions that they are looking for. The district, town, county and state all have different areas of expertise and have also contacted outside authorities.

“My son was diagnosed with testicular cancer at age 20,” said Lawrence Belk. “Within 18 months of his diagnosis in 2009, we learned that two other students were also diagnosed with the disease.”

Belk also said that he has coached soccer and “half of the kids use nebulizers.”

The district reports that the school’s air quality tests normal.

Several parents during the sickout said that their child has been diagnosed with carboxyhemoglobin, an ailment caused by carbon monoxide exposure from auto exhaust and cigarette smoke exposure. 

Small amounts of carbon monoxide exposure can dramatically reduce the blood’s ability to transport oxygen, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Common conditions induced by carbon monoxide exposure include headaches, nausea, rapid breathing, weakness, exhaustion and confusion. 

The district uses the site as its bus depot and stores bus fuel in two underground 4,000-gallon diesel tanks, according to former board member Tammie Topel. Inspection information on the tanks are the responsibility of Suffolk County, according the New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation press officer.

The county’s report on the tanks were unavailable before press time. The district did not say if the building is constantly monitored for carbon monoxide.

Several parents with children with carboxyhemoglobin said that their requests to be relocated for health reasons were denied because the districts air tests did not detect unsafe carbon monoxide levels.

 “Brown water came out of the water fountain,” said student Lucas Yule. 

The district said the discoloration was caused by an iron buildup. Yule’s mother Tracy Muno said that the school sent home a letter explaining that it was flushing out its drinking water pipes.

Yule also attended classes in the K wing, where foul odors were most recently reported. 

“It smelled like puke,” he said.

Other people complained that the building smells like mold the minute you walk in the front door. The hallways in the school are known to flood. 

A letter dated Aug. 17, 2018, from New York State to the district superintendent has identified the chemical pesticide chlordane, which was banned 30 years ago, around the buildings perimeter. The state concluded, based on information from 2000, that it did not adversely impact air quality inside the school. Though two dust samples on windowsills in classrooms detected it in “low levels,” subsequent cleanings eliminated the chemical found on the windowsill. 

As previously reported [“Northport Families Plan ‘Sickout’ in Protest,” The Times of Huntington, Nov. 7], parents have identified 18 children diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma and aplastic anemia in the last 10 years. Former teachers have surveyed former staff and found 33 with cancer. 

A state public health assessment on the Northport Middle School was requested by Assemblyman Raia.  State health officials could only confirm that a study requested in spring of 2019, is being conducted on recent Northport High School graduates. The health department also stated in an email that community members are welcome to contact the Department at 518-473-7817, or via email at canmap@health.state.ny.us to discuss their concerns and provide detailed information.

The district said that it understands how issues surrounding environmental matters are unsettling. Since all testing has indicated that the building is safe, the district said in a letter to parents that its subcommittee will address the more important task of bringing people together. 

The district did not return phone calls and email inquiries about hallways flooding and the relocation of the districts bus depot.

 

Lisa Cooper embraces her son Dante Lombardo at a recent reunion. Photo from Lisa Cooper

Mental health, particularly among service members, often seems to be a forgotten topic. One man and his Northport High School friends want to change that by riding bicycles this June from New York to California to raise awareness about mental health concerns among those who have served our nation’s military. 

Dante Lombardo in uniform. Photo from Lombardo

Dante Lombardo is a former U.S. Marine who was medically discharged due to his mental health. The East Northport resident,  who graduated from Northport High School in 2015, served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve from 2015 to 2019. He was trained as a digital wideband transmission equipment operator and as a field radio operator. 

Throughout Lombardo’s time in the Marine Reserves, he struggled with depression and anxiety, and like many others in a similar position, tried to “tough it out,” because that’s what he said the current military culture dictates. “Nearly anybody who has served can tell you that it is highly frowned upon to seek out mental health care,” he explained.

These issues came to a head in April of last year for Lombardo, when he attempted to take his own life. Thankfully, he was connected with a local behavioral health service, giving access to the counseling and the psychiatric care he needed. 

“Had it not been for these services, I do not believe I would have ever begun the path to wellness that I am on today,” said Lombardo.

Unfortunately, many service members suffer from similar mental health issues but do not seek out the help provided by the military, Lombardo said, in fear of being separated from duty due to their issues.

The statistics are staggering.

“We see 20 veterans each day take their own lives,” said Barbara Van Dahlen, a clinical psychologist who created in 2005 a national network of professionals who provide free services to U.S. troops, veterans, their loved ones and their community. “People think that because the war is over, so are the challenges, but that’s not the case.” 

‘People think that because the war is over, so are the challenges, but that’s not the case.’

— Barbara Van Dahlen

As for Lombardo, he may no longer wear his Marine uniform, but he and his bike team are committed to fighting for their fellow service members. 

Lombardo, Brian Fabian and Anthony Rubin, all Northport High School graduates,  just earned their college degrees. Lombardo graduated from Clinton College, Fabian from SUNY Plattsburgh last weekend and Rubin from SUNY Buffalo. Now, they’re raising money in a GoFundMe campaign to pay for expenses that occur throughout the trip. Proceeds remaining will be donated to Give an Hour, which earns exceptional ratings as a charity on Guidestar. 

Give an Hour was chosen, the bike team stated, because it is an organization that is not affiliated with the Department of Defense and can provide mental health services to those in need, without running the risk of negative consequences from the service members chain of command. Lombardo said that the charity could provide service members the opportunity to get help and start healing before their issues become a crisis that demands the official attention of their command, or one that brings harm to themselves or others, while simultaneously defending them from the stigma of needing mental health care while serving.

“The need is huge,” Van Dahlen said in a phone interview. She is honored and grateful for Lombardo’s efforts to raise awareness and funds for the non-profit. 

Van Dahlen emphasizes the need for collaborative approach to address the issues. “We really can take care of the understandable mental health needs of those who serve and their families,” Van Dahlen said. “If we work together and coordinate services — we in the government, nonprofit and private sectors — our country can hopefully step up to serve those who have given so much.”

Northport residents Dante Lombardo, Brian Fabian and Anthony Rubin are riding bicycles cross-country to raise awareness about military mental health issues. Photo from Coast to Coast for Mental Health, Dante Lombardo’s supporters.

It’s a concept that Lombardo and his bike team understand. “This fight is not one person’s burden to bear, but instead one we face together.”

During the team’s travels cross-country, they plan to volunteer in soup kitchens, homeless shelters, elderly care homes and other places that offer opportunities to give back. Their journey aims to seek out and hear the testimonies of veterans nationwide so their stories may be heard. 

The bike team has created a Facebook group page, Coast-to-Coast for Mental Health, which will be updated to post stories and experiences of the team, as well as testimonies of those who have suffered. This trip is a humanitarian interactive wellness journey as seen through three young Long Island men who are raising awareness for those who suffer with mental health issues all too often in silence. 

Lombardo encourages people to share the funding page, the Facebook page, as well as sharing their own stories. His message to the public, “We’ll be seeing you on the trail.”

The Times of Huntington will provide updates of the team’s journey in upcoming issues.

The GoFundMe page, Give an Hour website and an overview of the charity from Charity Navigator  can be found at: 

GoFundMe: www.gofundme.com/tmt6z-coast-to-coast-for-mental-health

Give an Hour: www.giveanhour.org

Charity Navigator: www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=search.summary&orgid=17415

Northport-East Northport Superintendent Robert Banzer. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

By David Luces

Northport school administrators gave taxpayers their first glimpse at what potential issues the district will face as it starts to draft its 2019-20 budget.

Superintendent Robert Banzer gave his first overview of the Northport-East Northport school district’s preliminary budget for 2019-20 at the Jan. 24 board of education meeting. The highlights includes two large expenses to the district are expected to decrease based on his initial calculations, but the schools have a different challenge to contend with.

“I’m glad to see that the TRS went down and health insurance is less. Those two things escalated on us last year — and that was a challenge,”

— Robert Banzer

The superintendent said the district’s state-mandated employer contribution to the Teacher Retirement System is anticipated to drop from 10.62 down to somewhere between 9.5 and 8.5 percent, and health care insurance premiums are projected to decrease. 

“I’m glad to see that the TRS went down and health insurance is less,” he said. “Those two things escalated on us last year — and that was a challenge.”

For 2019-20, Banzer explained the district will be permitted to raise taxes by up to 3.22 percent and remain with the state-mandated tax cap. The number can raise above the often cited 2 percent for numerous reasons including tax-base growth and rollover from prior years.

The superintendent said the district’s officials will be mindful of trying to draft a budget that comes in at or below the cap.

“Potentially it will be 3.22 percent, but I hope that it is less and we save taxpayers some money,” trustee David Badanes said.

The district’s budget for the current year is $166,810,381. According to the superintendent, the budget amount has increased by around 1.5 percent each year since the 2013-14 school year. Over half the budget is attributed to personnel’s salaries, about a quarter of it is attributed to employee benefits, according to Banzer. 

Each year, the district’s budget is financed 80 percent through the district’s tax levy, which for the 2018-19 school year totaled approximately $146,0000. About 10 percent of the district’s revenue comes in the form of state aid, the district is currently projected to receive more than $16 million based on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) 2019 Executive Budget. Banzer noted that it is only a projected number, and one he hopes could be higher once the actual budget is passed.

There’s work to be done in between. There’s going to be opportunities for input.”

— Robert Banzer

One challenge the school district must face is how to deal with the continued declining enrollment. The superintendent projected the schools have lost nearly 1,165 students since the 2011-12 school year. 

“That’s pretty significant, a lot of it has been in the elementary level,” Banzer said. “Things are starting to level off there but now it seems like it is coming to the secondary level.”

Each year, the district’s budget is financed 80 percent through the district’s tax levy, which for the 2018-19 school year totaled approximately $146,0000.

The next Northport school board meeting dedicated to the 2019-20 budget overview will be March 7 at 7 p.m. in the William J. Brosnan School Building, located at 158 Laurel Ave. The district has approximately four months to refine the budget before the vote slated for May 21.

“There’s work to be done in between,” the superintendent said. “There’s going to be opportunities for input.”