NEW HAVEN>>Bill Oliver and Juan Gardner are among a host of parents who are outraged that toxic chemicals remain on James Hillhouse High School football field.
After zero home games last season and none this season, they have decided to pass over city officials and are demanding assistance from federal officials.
Bowen Field is adjacent to Hillhouse High School where the team uses the field to practice and play their home games.
“Last year, we were told it was a one-year project and we all understood the sacrifices, because we wanted to get the improvements done,” said Oliver, who’s the Hillhouse High School football booster club coordinator and whose son, Billy Oliver Jr., plays on the team.
“Eighteen months later, we see the field in the same condition that it was in 18 months ago. That’s unacceptable for our players and community.
“We see no bulldozers, and no other heavy equipment. Nothing is happening. It’s creating a hardship for us and our community and we need Washington to step in”
In August 2013, preparations for pre-construction by the school district for Bowen Field were underway until preliminary testing found elevated levels of PCB in caulk joints of the bleachers and in the paint on the exterior of the locker rooms, according to the school district.
The Board of Education immediately contacted the New Haven Health Department, which reached out to the state Department of Public Health and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) to notify them of the findings and the plan to immediately fence off all areas impacted by the PCBs, according to a August 2013 district press release.
In addition, the BOE also contacted United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to discuss its findings and the plan to immediately fence off all impacted areas, install signs informing the public of the areas being tested and limit access around the bleachers and impacted buildings, the release said.
A School Based Building Advisory Committee was formed to present the findings to the committee.
The committee is made up of representatives from the New Haven Department of Parks and Recreation, BOE athletics, Friends of Beaver Pond Park and citizens of the community at large, the release said.
Lack of confidence in the system
New Haven Public School spokeswoman Abbe Smith said the Bowen Field project is moving forward now that the remediation plan has been approved by the EPA.
“We understand parents’ concerns and we want to get this project underway, but had to go through the legal EPA process,” Smith said.
“The district is optimistic and hopeful that work will begin in November, delays could happen but we’re going to work hard as we can to get this project off the ground.”
The project was delayed when the district had to engage in additional testing of the site and work with the EPA on a remediation plan to clean up the site before construction can begin. The process, which is required by law, unfortunately took longer than expected, according to the district.
The total cost of the Bowen Field project is roughly $12 million, with much of the cost reimbursable through state school construction grants. The additional $4.9 million cost of remediation is being funded through a state grant.
“In August, we learned that the state was kicking in $4.9 million to cover the cost of remediation,” Smith said. “We are grateful to Governor Malloy and the legislature, because they came through for New Haven.”
But Gardner said he doesn’t have confidence that construction will start as planned.
“If the money is there, why aren’t things moving? They have the money but we don’t see any trucks or anything at this point happening,” said Gardner, whose son is co-captain of the team. “Hands down, if this was a white school, the project would have been done. We would have had our opening ceremony and ribbon cutting with a state-of-the-art field. That’s no lie.”
Reggie Lytle, the school’s head football coach, said his players are disappointed not having a field to call their own.
“They’re uncomfortable with traveling every game. It’s like every game is an away game,” said Lytle, who played at Bowen Field growing up.
“We’ve been told a lot. They said it would be ready to go this year. We don’t honestly believe we’re going to play here next year. Right now we’re at a disadvantage.”
Now that the project has been approved, Oliver and Gardner are demanding federal officials put pressure on the EPA to ensure work begins in November.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal D-Conn. said he will encourage a speedy process.
“I understand the frustration with the delays caused by the unexpected discovery of PCBs,” Blumenthal said.
“Testing to determine the extent of the contamination is critical to ensure the health and safety of the students and residents who will use the field. Final testing results have been sent to the EPA and I will encourage an expedited review so this project can get back on track.”
Attempts were made to reach a spokesperson at the EPA, but phone calls were not returned.
No home field advantage
The team has been inconvenience by having to use other school facilities to play home games, particularly this season, which is dedicated to a former player who was killed.
Over the summer, the Hillhouse High School community lost Jacob Craggett, 15, who played football for the school when he was killed in a triple shooting in which his brother, Joshua, was also critically injured.
“It’s not fair that we have to play at other teams fields, especially fields that aren’t in New Haven, because we don’t have the local support to help us succeed,” said Billy Oliver Jr., 15. “The local support is really necessary, it drives us and motivates us to win games for the community.
“I’m not sure if they’ll start the work in November.”
However, city spokesman Laurence Grotheer said Mayor Toni Harp is working hard to secure an alternative facility until remediation is complete.
“We are aware of the matter,” Grotheer said. “But the district and the EPA have their procedures and standards; they are the responsible party for the clean-up.
“The mayor is working to secure a site for the student-athletics and nothing is quite ready to be announced.”
But Saturday morning, the Register obtained an email from a source close to the situation that Superintendent of Schools Garth Harries approved the use of $13,765.00 for the rental of Jess Dow Field at Southern Connecticut State University.
In the email that was sent to the district and city officials from Citywide Athletic Director Joe Canzanella, he asked that the appropriate paperwork/contract be drawn up for New Haven athletics to use Jess Dow Field as soon as Friday, Sept. 26 when Law High School will play Hillhouse High School. Kick-off time will be at 8 p.m.
As agreed, the teams would have access to the field and adjoining facilities at no earlier 6:30 p.m.
“In order to get ahead of the curve, I ask if you can send me the parameters that are required for a certificate of insurance,” according to Canzanella in the email.
“Finally, we want to thank SCSU President Papazian and you for moving so quickly with this timely matter. The New Haven Community appreciates the “good neighbor” cooperation by SCSU.” Canzenella said, referring to SCSU official Antonio L. Aceto.
Hillhouse High School Principal Kermit Carolina said the alternate site will be great for parents and other city residents who follow the team.
“It will reduce travel time and make it more convenient for New Haven fans to get to the games,” Carolina said.
In addition, Carolina said, “It gives Southern Connecticut State University the opportunity to strengthen their relationship with city residents and expose more high school students to their great campus environment.”
While Oliver said he appreciates the work that has been done to secure the alternate site, he and other parents want to see the plan and start date in November.
“I’ll be here the first day the remediation happens,” Oliver said. “Whoever the district is meeting with and giving updates to about the project; it’s not us.”
Oliver said parents want to sit with the senators, the superintendent and the mayor to be a part of the process.
“We have to be careful of who we vote into office on all levels, that’s the problem,” Gardner said. “Right now, we’re in a cage like animals. We’re divided and practicing on the baseball field; we can’t even practice field goals.”
Four other separate teams also use the baseball field for practice.
Gardner believes other towns would not have their players practicing in bad circumstances.
“Our kids’ lives are just not valued; this is like playing in your backyard,” he said.
Greater New Haven NAACP Branch President Doris Dumas said closing the field has been a big loss to the community.
“We want the same attention, funding and work that goes into the suburban communities, to be put into the urban communities,” said Dumas, who’s a 1982 graduate of the school and was a cheerleader for four years.
“Bowen Field is a staple in the New Haven community. We want it to be cleaned up, fixed up and back up running, and it needs to be a priority.”
Oliver said the bottom line is, “The school is an identity of the community and the field is an identity for the community. Taking games out of the community has an impact on our youth.”
Call Community Engagement Editor Shahid Abdul-Karim at 203-680-9343. Have questions, feedback or ideas about our news coverage? Connect directly with the editors of the New Haven Register at AskTheRegister.com.