School Districts Explore Solutions For Excessive Portable Classroom Use

Third-grade teacher Nancy Avery helps her class during reading time. Avery taught in a portable classroom for 27 years. This is her first year inside a brick-and-mortar building at Jefferson Elementary in Spokane, Washington. Photo: Courtney Flatt/EarthFix

SPOKANE, Wash. — Teachers at Spokane’s Jefferson Elementary don’t have to look far to know what they left behind.

The school’s old portable classrooms sit just a block away from their brand new building. It was in those portables where for nearly 30 years, Nancy Avery made the choice between fresh air and listening to her students, when she’d routinely switch off the noisy ventilation system that drowned out their voices.

It was in the school’s 14 portables where students and teachers were sick far too often, she said. Several teachers contracted skin reactions, she said, that have dissipated since the move to the new building.

No longer does Avery worry about water leaks and ceiling stains. No more will the hot, stuffy box lull her students during standardized testing.

But most of all, there’s no more smell. That’s what she and the others notice most.

“Those portable classrooms don’t have a masonry foundation at all, so you just have dirt underneath — so it smells a lot better in this new building,” Jefferson Elementary Principal Mary-Dean Wooley said. “That moldy, earthy smell is absent completely.”

In September, Jefferson Elementary’s new $25-million campus eliminated the need for portables. Built with enough space to accommodate future enrollment growth, Wooley said the school shouldn’t need them any time soon.

States Put No Limits On Use Of Portable Classrooms

Workers at Blazer Industries push a half-built portable classroom out the door of the modular building manufacturing plant in Aumsville, Oregon. Photo: Cassandra Profita/EarthFix

AUMSVILLE, Ore. – After affixing the roof to the walls, five workers push a half-built classroom out the door of the Blazer Industries manufacturing plant. Clearly, this is a portable classroom.

It’s one of about 130 portables Blazer has been contracted to build this year. Most will go to overcrowded schools in Washington state, and most will be built in four to seven days. Inside this warehouse, the company has built entire schools, churches, hospitals and high-end homes — one truckable piece at a time.

Blazer’s customers can choose what kind of buildings they want. They can order upgraded heating and ventilation systems and non-toxic building materials to improve the indoor air quality and reduce health risks, company engineer Rock Shetler said. But those options cost a lot more.

“The biggest thing with classrooms is really the budget of the school districts,” he said. “When the budget only allows the cheapest materials and the cheapest products, that’s really what it comes down to.”

The state of Washington says the cheapest materials aren’t good enough for new schools. It requires new school buildings to meet a long list of environmental conditions to qualify for state construction funds under the Sustainable School Protocol.

“Merely complying with minimum codes during design and installation will not ensure good indoor air quality,” the state says in the protocol.

But those rules don’t apply to portable classrooms. For portables, Washington offers recommendations, not requirements.

‘They Have To Go’: The Environmental And Health Costs Of Portable Classrooms

Teacher Billie Lane’s portable is a world apart from other classrooms at her school.

She’s filled the space with toys from across the universe: Star Trek, Star Wars, Marvel, Transformers and Godzilla. Lane’s World, her students named it — an homage to the faux public-access TV hit.

The modular classroom at Kalles Junior High in Puyallup, Washington is her home. She’s taught in the box for 16 years.

And she takes care of it. But not every portable classroom is like hers.

“Some of them smell really bad,” she says. “Some of them, the lighting is really bad. It’s dark. It’s dank. And when it’s that kind of an atmosphere, it sets a tone for your meetings or for your classroom. It doesn’t feel very welcoming. It’s not a good place to be.”

The Puyallup School District where she teaches has 205 such boxes. They form 20 percent of the district’s classroom space. They hold more than 4,000 students — so many that a new high school, a new middle school and two elementary schools wouldn’t provide enough classroom space for them all.

Video: Sick of Portables

What portable classrooms mean for student health and the environment and why school districts keep adding them. Part of a special report by EarthFix and InvestigateWest »

 

Credits:

Produced, written, narrated and edited by Katie Campbell
Reported by Katie Campbell, Ashley Ahearn and Tony Schick
Photography by Katie Campbell and Aileen Imperial
Graphic by Nicole Fischer and Danika Sandoz

Map: Biomass Plants in British Columbia

British Columbia doesn't maintain a centralized registry of biomass energy facilities in the province, so in the course of reporting "Smoke and Numbers," we put together our own list from independent sources.

Click any dot on the map to view the facility's name, size and a description of its operations.

Byline: 

Sketchy Claims Inflate B.C.'s Wood Energy Exports

Industry advocates say B.C. could become the "Saudi Arabia of Biomass" -- but that probably won’t be good for the global climate.
Photo: Böhringer Friedrich/Wikimedia.

Eight words in a 927-page document. That’s all it took to launch a European policy with big implications for B.C. That policy counts burning wood to produce energy as equivalent, climate-wise, to solar and wind power. This despite the fact that burning wood releases the very same greenhouse gasses as any fossil fuel; the same gasses that are turning oceans acidic and melting the polar ice caps. Here are the eight words: “The emission factor for biomass shall be zero.”

Not, you will note, “are zero.” No: “shall be zero.” Behind that starkly declarative pronouncement lay months of tense international negotiations over the climate-change implications of burning biomass, or any kind of plant matter: wood, agricultural wastes, or crops grown for burning. In the end, the winning argument was that biomass regrows, recapturing the carbon released when it was burned, and therefore must be OK for the climate.

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Robert McClure's picture

Brent Sauder: ‘It's not research, it's a mission'

University of British Columbia's Brent Sauder
Photo: Paul Joseph Brown/ecosystemphoto.com for InvestigateWest

As director of strategic partnerships for the University of British Columbia, Brent Sauder had a major role in shaping plans for the new $34 million biomass power plant on campus, known as the Bioenergy Research and Development Facility. The industrial facility sits just across the street from bluffs overlooking Georgia Strait — some of the most expensive real estate in Canada, in other words.

In an on-campus interview last year with InvestigateWest’s Robert McClure for our “Smoke and Numbers” series with The Tyee, Sauder explained UBC’s motivations and rationale for bringing the facility to campus in a partnership with General Electric and Vancouver-based Nexterra. Their conversation has been edited and condensed.

 

Brent Sauder:                  One of the problems with BC is that we have very cheap power. The development of these kinds of technologies would tend to take place in places where there’s higher power prices. But obviously we want to have good companies grow in British Columbia so this was an opportunity for us to actually get them to develop their product here.

When they first came to us saying would we be interested in being a demonstration site, in typical Canadian fashion the only thing we have is land so that’s what we actually put toward the project. We have a site.

UBC is about 50,000 students. It’s one of the largest land grant universities in North America and we have our own governance system. We're not the city of Vancouver. So part of the whole thing of this project was to get the social license to actually build a facility like this.

Robert McClure: Because it's an industrial facility in the middle of campus?

Byline: 

Biomass Fuel: Worse for Climate than Coal?

A worker unloads a truckload of biomass at the Univeristy of British Columbia energy plant.
Credit: Paul Joseph Brown/ecosystemphoto.com for InvestigateWest

The crackling log fire, flickering in an open hearth, may win the day for romance or Christmas cards. From the modern viewpoint of efficiency and good health, it’s more of a horror show. Our ancestors, living in unvented huts lit and warmed by open fires, wheezed and coughed their way to early deaths. Burning wood still releases an old-timey scented bouquet of toxins: nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, dioxin, and a couple dozen other chemicals classified as hazardous air pollutants, along with ultrafine particles of super-toxic soot that go deep into the lungs. As a 2007 Health Canada review put it, “Even though wood smoke is natural, it is not benign.”

For that reason, a well-run modern biomass-burning power plant is much less smoky than a fireplace. High-tech smoke scrubbers with multisyllabic names like "electrostatic precipitator" and "regenerative thermal oxidizers" scrub their exhaust, and operators work continually to bring down pollution levels, tweaking temperatures and fuels. The state-of-the-art may be UBC’s $34-million Bioenergy Research and Demonstration Facility reported on in the first installment in this series: what comes out of its smokestack is even cleaner than emissions from most natural-gas plants.

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