Debris, contamination unearthed during Taconic High site work


PITTSFIELD — Foundation preparation and other site work for the $120.8 million Taconic High School project has unearthed contamination and buried construction debris, along with areas of soil that are unsuitable for building purposes.

The School Building Needs Commission met Monday with its consultants, the project design team and the project management firm to discuss and release details about the problems, which could eat up several hundred thousand dollars of the project's $3.48 million contingency fund, officials said.

While disappointing and costly, the amounts involved are not out of line with the 30 to 35 percent of the average contingency fund for such a project that goes for unanticipated subsurface work, the officials said.

The 246,520-square-foot academic and vocational school will be constructed across from the current school's main entrance. The Massachusetts School Building Authority has issued approval for $74.2 million in state funding toward the Taconic project, and the City Council has approved bonding for up to $45 million for the Pittsfield's share of the cost.

John Benzinger, of Skanska USA, the school district's consultant on the new high school project, said the site work revealed areas of contaminated soils, with asphalt or tar substances that are not considered hazardous in a class with PCBs, but will nevertheless require disposal in a specialized landfill.

Construction debris also was mixed with the soils. That can be sifted through, with some going to a regular landfill and the rest used as fill, Benzinger said.

And there are veins of soils unsuitable to build upon, which will have to be replaced with suitable fill but that won't have to be disposed off-site.

The construction debris and contaminated materials were attributed to materials apparently buried and covered over and used as fill during construction of the current Taconic High School in 1969.

Commissioner and City Councilor Melissa Mazzeo and others asked whether it was possible to go after contractors from that project to recover the costs, but the officials said that may not be possible, given that there were few if any environmental regulations in place before the 1970s and given the difficulties of proving liability after nearly five decades.

However, ATC Associates, the city's hazardous materials consultant, has recommended that the city seek advice on that score from an environmental attorney, the officials said. Commission co-Chairpersons Kathleen Amuso and Pittsfield schools Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless said they plan to discuss those options with Mayor Linda M. Tyer.

Amuso said after the meeting Monday that the commission "felt it was important to get this information out" to the public, and to counter rumors that hazardous materials like PCBs had been unearthed.

"It is important to note that no one was endangered," she said.

McCandless said planners and the contractors "had some concerns" about costly surprises prior to the start of site work in May, but the amount of material that has to be dealt with was more than expected.

"I was disappointed and surprised by the amount of construction debris," McCandless said. "[Taconic] was clearly built in a time when the rules were more lax or didn't exist at all."

Most of the debris contaminated with tar-like substances was found in the area of the soccer field along Valentine Road, which is included within the site of the site of the new Taconic — expected to open in 2018. The old school building will then be razed during 2018-19.

Other spots of underground contamination or debris on the building site of the new school also are being investigated or have been excavated.

Benzinger said that "if we add all these together," the total estimated cost at this point is in the $600,000 to $700,000 range. But he added that the city's final share of the cost will depend on negotiations with contractors over relevant provisions in the work contracts and on the disposal costs at specialized landfills, for which bids are being sought.

The disposal costs, or tipping fees, primarily for contamination materials, is estimated at up to $300,000. Other costs to deal with the subsoil problems will be for added excavation work, filling where needed with concrete or new soil and related work, officials said.

The problems are not expected to upset the project schedule, which calls for the foundation to be complete by the fall when precast concrete and steel building components begin arriving. The building is expected to be made water tight by July 2017 and ready for an opening by summer 2018.

Bids for trades contractors and subcontractors are due to be opened this week.

Gilbane Building Co. of Boston is acting as project manager.

Along with the Skanska and Gilbane representatives, members of the design team of Drummey Rosane Anderson of Waltham attended the commission's afternoon meeting.

Benzinger said the contaminated materials have been stockpiled pending removal. About 1,071 cubic yards, or 1,608 tons of contaminated materials needing disposal at a specialized landfill site was found, along with 856 cubic yards of other construction debris, such as wood, metal and brick.

Another 165 cubic yards of possibly contaminated material is in a third stockpile and will be tested further before a determination on disposal is made.

Once a landfill is selected and the required paperwork and permitting approved, the removal will take about one week, the officials said.

Soils unsuitable for building and requiring removal and replacement total about 1,200 cubic yards.

The officials said soil test borings taken prior to the construction phase failed to detect the extent of the problems uncovered since the groundbreaking.

Other recent test borings around the current school also detected construction debris, but it remains unclear at this point what will be required to deal with those issues as those areas will be used for new athletic fields and won't require foundation work.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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