2 schools shut down; Franklin mayor and schools call for extended vapor testing

Webb Elementary School was one of two Franklin schools closed due to high levels of toxins discovered during tests. (WTHR photo)
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FRANKLIN, Ind. (WTHR) — High levels of toxins have forced the shutdown of two Franklin schools.

For the first time, "preliminary environmental testing results show contamination exceeding safe limits.

13 Investigates broke the story on WTHR.com, and now reveals why families are anxious about what the results mean.

It's significant because, for the very first time, these preliminary results link high levels of toxins to buildings where hundreds of children gather every single weekday.

Judy Cooper and her 8-year old great-granddaughter Lyric spent Thursday morning at the Franklin library. Across town, classrooms sat dark and empty at both Webb and Needham Elementary Schools.

"I think they need to quit messing around and get to the bottom of it," Cooper told 13 Investigates. "Either close the schools or fix the problem or something because the kids are at risk and the teachers are too."

The buildings were closed, locked down and off limits to Lyric, a third grader, and 700 other children after winter testing showed high levels of toxins exceeding Indiana's safe screening levels.

For Kari Rhinehart, co-founder of the grassroots group "If It Was Your Child," it's a jarring development.

"It's like salt on a wound," said Rhinehart, who can't help but wonder if there are possible connections between the toxins and high pediatric cancer rates.

Her daughter Emma Grace died in 2014 of glioblastoma, a rare brain cancer.

"More heartbreak because my kids went to this school," she told 13 Investigates.

At Webb, three of seven samples revealed troubling levels. At Needham, two of ten proved worrisome.

According to Franklin Community Schools, the winter tests screened for PCE and the known carcinogen TCE.

EnviroForensics used the same testing methods 13 Investigates saw last August. The firm reported just trace amounts of those vapors before the start of school. But now high preliminary levels require action under Indiana law.

EnviroForensics will conduct more testing in the next week.

FCS also closed school out of "an abundance of caution," and called the safety of its students and staff it's top priority.

"It's unfortunate that we all have to deal with this I mean, not good, but it does feel to me that we are making some progress towards solving the problem," said Nancy Olson of Franklin.

In November, the EPA confirmed a plume of TCE and PCE had migrated from the old Amphenol site about a mile away from the schools.

Now Franklin Mayor Steve Barnett says the city will conduct sewer testing west of Eastview Drive in the vicinity of the schools, to see if gases and vapors in and around the sewer manholes show elevated toxins like PCE and TCE.

Rhinehart still wants to see the EPA expand its testing area. She says 700 students are depending on it.

"A level is a level. If you have a level of TCE, whether it's above or below the limit, it doesn't matter. It shouldn't be here," explained Rhinehart. "The EPA should be compelled to move to the schools, to broaden their investigation."

Franklin Community Schools and EnviroForensics will provide the specifics on the school testing results Friday morning. Those numbers will provide the first real look at the extent of the contamination underneath the concrete of two Franklin schools.