Trustee asks if province slow to fix contaminated soil at Winnipeg school because neighbourhood is poor

A Winnipeg school trustee is questioning if the provincial government has been slow to address lead contamination concerns at an elementary school because it’s in a low-income neighbourhood.

Fencing is up at Weston Elementary School while the lead contamination into the sports field is considered unsafe. It has been removed during the winter, because the risk is low. (John Einerson/CBC)

A Winnipeg school trustee is questioning if the provincial government has been slow to address lead contamination concerns at an elementary school because it’s in a low-income neighbourhood.

Students cannot use the field at Weston School, located just off Logan Avenue, over concerns of high levels of lead contamination in the field.

“If there was lead contamination in the soil at a school in a more affluent community, would it have taken two years to remove the lead and open the schoolyard?” Jennifer Chen asked at the board meeting Monday night.

“Is this an issue of class discrimination?” she said. “Why have provincial politicians kicked the can down the road for so long.” 

The Winnipeg School Division has installed fencing to keep kids off the field since the fall of 2018, after soil tests showed unacceptably high levels of lead. The tests were from 2007, but WSD officials only became aware of it that fall, CBC reported

‘We’re not being noticed’

April Roller, who leads the Weston School parent advisory council, agreed with Chen’s questioning.

“I believe that because we are a lower income area that we’re not being noticed as much,” Roller told reporters, after speaking to trustees about the barred field

“If it was Lindenwoods or Transcona or whatever, more parents would be coming out to the meeting, more parents would be speaking up.”

“Our parents [in our neighbourhood]. They don’t have childcare, they work in the evenings, they don’t have vehicles, they bus to places. They’re not able to get to places to speak their mind because they have other priorities that need to be dealt with,” Roller said.

April Roller, president of the parent advisory school at Weston Elementary School, speaks with trustees. She says that students are struggling without access to the sports field and play structure. (Ian Froese/CBC)

The province said in a statement Monday night it recently received the findings of a “nearly 400-page independent, risk analysis report on lead in soil,” and would be publicly releasing the findings this month. 

The school’s field has been opened for two consecutive winters, because the risk of exposure was low. It is expected the barricades will return once the snow melts.

Roller told the trustees that students aren’t getting enough exercise without their field, and their parents cannot afford recreational programs after school.

She said kids are separated from their friends because the school has split up the recesses so the concrete pad can accommodate all the students.

“They’re not getting their time outside that they need, which means they’re more restless in class,” Roller said.

Her 10-year-old son says school has become boring without the field.

Tests in 2007 showed that 19 of 22 samples taken from the field contained levels of lead contamination that exceeded national guidelines for human health protection. Some of the concentrations from Weston School were several times the provincially-set limit.

The results of the tests were contained in a draft report from July 2009, and a near-identical draft in 2011, that were obtained by CBC. Neither report was publicly released by the former NDP government.

Province won’t sit on results: PCs

The Progressive Conservatives paid for new soil testing last year. WSD was told last December the report was completed and would be released early in 2020, board chair Chris Broughton said.

In a statement, a government spokesperson said the province is “committed to being open and transparent with Manitobans on this important issue, unlike the NDP who hid lead in soil test results from the province.”

On Monday, Chen called on the government to release the report quickly so remediation work can start. She’s hopeful the playground will be reopened in September — two years after it first closed.

Chen said she wasn’t accusing the province of acting slowly, but said the question needed to be asked because she feels class discrimination is at play. 

“I don’t want to avoid saying that we … have class discrimination in this society,” she said after the meeting. “Weston School children, they don’t deserve to be treated like this and they deserve the same as other children.”

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