Digging up history

Dirt work is progressing at Iola's new elementary school site. Interesting discoveries have been unearthed, including underground brick tunnels, that reveal the long industrial history of the property.

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September 25, 2020 - 3:47 PM

Foreman Don Dunn checks out a series of underground tunnels found during excavation at the site of a new elementary school. The tunnels likely were used for a brick foundry, located at the property about 100 years ago. Courtesy photo

An endless parade of dump trucks trundle onto the site of the new elementary school in a well-choreographed performance. 

Truck driver Karla Boots circles her vehicle around an assortment of bulldozers, then drops a load of dirt. The hinged metal rear door claps against the bed when it empties, echoing through the neighborhood like applause. Boots exits stage left.

Karla Boots of Welda is one of seven area dump truck operators hired to haul dirt to and from the site of a new elementary school.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

The scene shifts to a bulldozer as it pushes a roller over the fresh dirt. Flat metal prongs called “sheep’s feet” press square patterns into the ground. When the next load of dirt is dropped, it will settle into the space and provide just the right amount of compaction between dirt, water and air.

Aside, foreman Dan Dunn meets with Drew Thomas, a field technician with Anderson Engineering. Thomas uses a probe to conduct a nuclear ground test to determine the level of compaction and moisture content, then discusses the results with Dunn.

So far, Thomas says, the results have been quite good at the site.

Crews are in the process of building a dirt pad for a new elementary school that will be constructed in the next year or so. 

The process has gone very smoothly, according to Stan Shultz, owner of RenTerra, the company contracted for the excavation and dirt work. 

Stan Shultz of RenTerra, oversees the excavation and dirt work for a new elementary school.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

TWO WEEKS ago, a giant hole — 6 feet, 8 inches deep across 100,000 square feet of ground — occupied the middle section of the property at Kentucky and Monroe streets.

Two months ago, the land was overgrown with weeds, brush and trees that filled the space between dilapidated structures and unused storage buildings. 

About 10 years ago, local authorities considered building a new hospital on the site but decided it would be too difficult and costly to remove and replace lead-contaminated soil. 

One hundred years ago, smoke belched from the various industrial buildings at the site: a brick plant, ironworks foundry, a zinc smelting factory and even a hog processing plant. The city capitalized on what residents falsely believed would be a bottomless supply of natural gas.

Two hundred years ago, it was an untouched prairie with a still-hidden reserve of underground natural gas. 

Shultz likes to think about the varied roles the property has played over time, and how it once helped Iola grow into a thriving city around the turn of the century.

Then, he likes to imagine what it will soon become: A school where generations of children will learn, play and grow. 

“It’s rewarding to see we’re doing something here where kids will go to school here for the next 50 years or more. That makes us want to do it right,” Shultz said.

“A hundred years ago, if you saw the factories and all the black smoke coming out of them, you never would have thought you could have a school here. When this is done, it will be safe. It will be a showpiece.”

Multiple lead and zinc smelting operations located in Iola, Gas and LaHarpe in the late 1800s and early 1900s, drawn to the city by the development of natural gas fields and nearby railroad lines.

Jim Bagdell of Miami, Okla., runs a sheep’s feet roller over a fresh layer of dirt at the site of the new Iola Elementary School at Kentucky and Monroe streets. RenTerra, owned by Stan Shultz, has removed contaminated soil from the property and is in the process of adding clean new dirt to build a solid foundation for the school.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

Those early industrial practices, dating to at least 1896, processed and smelted ores containing lead, arsenic, cadmium, barium and zinc. Waste, wafting through the air in the form of smoke from the factories and flowing through the water and ground from runoff, deposited dangerous heavy metals throughout the city. 

The contaminated material also was transferred throughout the city as crews used smelter waste piles as the base for roads, railroad ballasts, and fill around houses, sidewalks and driveways.

It took decades before scientists discovered just how dangerous those materials could be, even in trace amounts. 

The Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970 by President Richard Nixon to address concerns about air and water pollution.

In the 1980s, the EPA would designate Superfund sites. These are places throughout the U.S. that are contaminated with hazardous material and require a long-term clean up response.

Iola was designated as one such site in 2005 after an investigation by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment found lead contamination in several areas of the city. Hundreds of properties were cleaned up by soil remediation in 2006 and 2007. 

Foreman Don Dunn of RenTerra takes a break from operating a bulldozer at the site of a new elementary school.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

Starting in 2015, another cleanup investigation began. Veterans Worldwide, also owned by Shultz, was hired to remediate the soil for hundreds of residential properties in Iola. The company is about halfway through a four-year contract.

RenTerra is the partner company of Veterans Worldwide, which is remediating soil throughout Iola under a contract with the EPA.

Shultz explains the relationship: “Veterans digs dirty dirt and takes it to the landfill. RenTerra sells clean dirt to Veterans.”

The new soil comes from a farm east of Iola, which RenTerra purchased. The company digs clay and soil that meets specific standards, and uses that to replace the contaminated soil. The farm will also provide topsoil. When RenTerra and Veterans Worldwide complete their projects, their dig site will become a large pond and the farm will be resold.

The new elementary school site initially wasn’t on the EPA’s cleanup list. But as the school district declared that it was a preferred location for the school, and voters approved, a coalition of agencies began efforts to clean the property.

The school board and city worked with Shultz, Terracon, KDHE and the EPA to chart a path forward. As a result, the EPA agreed to cover costs associated with cleaning up the eastern third of the site, which was the site of the zinc factory and has the worst contamination. The school district’s bond, approved by taxpayers, will cover costs associated with the western two-thirds.

The far western third of the property will become a parking lot. The school will sit in the middle section. The eastern third will become a playground.

Throughout the process, tests have been conducted to ensure the property meets safety standards. After RenTerra has completed its soil work, the EPA will test the site to make sure it is safe.

RenTerra began work at the site during the last week of July. The dirt pad for the school should be completed in about two weeks.

Shultz expects to wrap up his part of the project in early November. The site will be turned over to Coonrod & Associates, the general contractor for the project, and construction likely will begin on the actual building soon after. 

City officials also are working to build a walking and bike trail to the school as an extension of the Missouri Pacific Trail.

“What’s interesting to me is how the city and the school have worked together to make this happen,” Shultz said. “This school is going to be a big positive for the city. Iola has a lot going for it.”

A series of underground tunnels were found during excavation at the site of a new elementary school. The tunnels likely were used for a brick foundry, located at the property about 100 years ago. Courtesy photo
Foreman Don Dunn checks out a series of underground tunnels found during excavation at the site of a new elementary school. The tunnels likely were used for a brick foundry, located at the property about 100 years ago. Courtesy photo
A series of underground tunnels were found during excavation at the site of a new elementary school. The tunnels likely were used for a brick foundry, located at the property about 100 years ago. Courtesy photo
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EXCAVATING the site is like digging up history, Shultz said. 

“All of these projects have a fascinating story,” he said.

Terracon, an environmental engineering firm, dug exploratory holes earlier in the process to see what might be buried underneath and how it might be contaminated.

In one area, about 4 to 5 feet deep, they found it was filled with discarded bottles and brick.

Another area, discovered by RenTerra crews, revealed an underground network of arched brick tunnels. They were found about 2 feet underground, and each tunnel was fully bricked — top, bottom, sides — and about 3 feet deep. It was found near the site of a former brick foundry, but the bricks used for the tunnels were fire bricks (which can handle high temperatures) and stamped by a St. Louis company, not the same bricks made at Iola. 

Shultz doesn’t know much about the tunnels, but speculates they might have been built to carry steam used in the brick-making process.

In other parts of the property, crews discovered a dark-colored silica sand that isn’t native to the region. Shultz doesn’t know where it came from and it isn’t contaminated, but it clearly was brought to Iola for some sort of industrial use. 

Shultz was surprised when crews went to demolish an existing structure at the north part of the property and discovered it was once used as a hog processing plant.

In another area in the southwest corner, crews dug 18 feet and continued to find contaminated material.

None of that is native, Shultz said.

“All of that came here on railroads, from places like Joplin, Pittsburg and Baxter Springs where they dug it up out of mines,” he said.

A geo-textile fabric will be laid underneath the new soil to further protect the property from contamination. 

The coronavirus pandemic delayed construction work for about three months. The residential property cleanup work by Veterans Worldwide is ramping back up after the shutdown, with several hundred properties left.

Drew Thomas of Anderson Engineering places a nuclear probe to test the soil compaction at the site.Courtesy photo

Shultz makes it a priority to hire local workers for the school site and other projects. Of the 22 employees working at the school property, 17 come from this area. 

On Thursday and Friday, the dump trucks continued their merry-go-round of dirt deliveries. RenTerra hired seven dump truck drivers from the local area. Each truck makes 30 rounds a day between the site and the farm east of town. Together, the trucks dump about 330 loads of dirt each day. Each load carries between 10 and 12 cubic feet of dirt.

“Every job is different. That’s what makes it so challenging. It’s fun,” Shultz said. “It’s like when you were a kid and you played in the sandbox. The only difference is now the machines are bigger and they have motors.”

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