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'This can't be legal' | Some DC residents fear charter school demolition project may pose a health hazard

KIPP DC said there is no asbestos in the old Ferebee-Hope Elementary School building.

WASHINGTON — A charter school construction project is causing some safety and environmental concerns in one D.C. community.

Neighbors in the Washington Highlands section of Southeast called WUSA9 for help, saying the demolition phase of a former elementary school is sending smoke and debris into nearby homes.  

WUSA9 visited the community on May 26 and it was a buzzing construction site, as pieces of the old Ferebee-Hope Elementary School on 8th and Yuma Streets, SE were torn down. 

“Just look at it and look where we live,” said Schyla Pondexter-Moore as she pointed to the demolition. "Can you imagine what we’re inhaling from this building that was built in 1974?" 

The Ferebee-Hope site sits across the street from the Highland Dwellings public housing complex. The school was closed in 2014 and sat empty for five years until KIPP-DC Charter School purchased the property from the District. According to KIPP, environmental studies prove there are no toxins or asbestos in the building. 

That doesn’t sit well with Pondexter-Moore, who sent WUSA9 cellphone video of clouds of smoke heading towards nearby homes.

“All of a sudden you start seeing these plumes of dust and smoke and debris is falling on you,” she said. "It’s in your eyelashes, you’re breathing it in. This can’t be legal. This can’t be right!”

WUSA9 spotted several crews spraying water from different angles as the crane chewed away at the building.  According to KIPP’s Chief Community Engagement and Growth Officer Jacque Patterson, the water sprays are in response to community complaints that crews were not doing enough.

“So that’s what I’m going to continue to do, is to make sure I’m responsive to the community, because I live in this community,"Patterson said. "This is home to me." 

The $93 million construction project began more than two years ago.  KIPP's new high school is complete and, according to Patterson, serves students from the neighborhood. The property consisted of 10 acres, including the school and a recreation center. Patterson said as part of the deal, KIPP agreed to rebuild the community rec center. The school is investing $14 million into the center, but residents complain they lost amenities, including a tennis court and an Olympic-size swimming pool. 

Yolanda Williams said the pool they currently have is for children.  

“I’m 51 years old," Williams said. "I need it for my size and my ability." 

Williams used the pool for water therapy after she was involved in a car crash. She said the new smaller pool won’t meet the needs of families. 

Patterson disagrees.

“We did an intergenerational pool, which is not as deep and does not have as many swimming laps, but it does serve the community in partnership with DPR for the entire community,” she said. 

Patterson said the school's plan will eventually include a football field, a Washington Nationals-branded baseball field and an expanded community garden.

“Don’t say it’s a plan,” responded Williams. "We need it today not tomorrow!”

As for the demolition, residents demand it be stopped until crews take further action to protect neighbors. WUSA9 reached back out to KIPP and a spokesperson said crews have paused demolition.

MCN Build (the construction team) paused demolition in order to meet with the DC Department of Energy & Energy to ensure that their dust mitigation plan meets and/or exceeds necessary requirements," the spokesperson wrote in response. "Once DOEE has reviewed the dust mitigation plan and re-affirms it's in alignment with the necessary requirements, MCN will resume demolition. MCN has shared they believe demolition will take three more weeks.”

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