The Yuba River Charter School stresses love of the arts and the outdoors in a "whole child" learning program "to serve the whole world."
Yet when administrators and parents for the unique Nevada County school went looking for pastoral locations for a new campus, they ran into a world of abandoned mines and toxic contamination from the region's gold mining era.
"Some properties had old mines on them, actually shafts on the property," said school director Caleb Buckley.
Now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is coming to the rescue of the school of 320 kindergartners to eighth- graders by awarding it the largest cleanup grant in California this year under a national program to restore contaminated lands.
The Yuba River school, opened in 1994 as America's first public charter school offering Waldorf curriculum, had finally found a pristine swath of nature for a campus of solar-powered buildings, an instructional farm and wildflower meadow. The school, currently in its third leased location in downtown Nevada City, has never had a permanent home.
But the 13-acre site above downtown Grass Valley, amid rolling hills, oaks, cedars and pines, adjoined 3 acres that were long ago mined for gold and - from the late 1880s to 1940 - used for three municipal garbage burn sites.
That property was fouled with arsenic, metal, glass, ceramics, paint cans and, most worrisome, lead that - in dust - could cause severe health effects in children.
On May 8, the EPA awarded $600,000 to Yuba River Charter School to clean up the site, haul away 300 cubic yards of toxic soil and blend in another 5,000 yards of clean soil. The 3-acre lot, also acquired by the school, will then be largely paved over as a parking lot, bus stop and entry to the new campus.
The EPA responded after the school community, including local parent volunteers trained in geology and natural resource restoration, implored the agency over the difficulty in finding untainted school construction sites in the historic Gold Rush region.
Reacting to their concerns, Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA regional director for the Pacific Southwest, visited the Nevada City and Grass Valley areas.
The region was home to the richest gold mine in California, legendary Empire Mine, which from 1850 to 1956 produced 5.8 million ounces of gold and a legacy of toxic contamination. Another area mine, the Lava Cap, is a Superfund cleanup site.
"There are few areas in this country that have the toxic legacy of this area, because this is the epicenter of gold," Blumenfeld said.
The EPA decided to fund the cleanup of the Grass Valley burn fields - under the supervision of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control - to "meet the protective standards" for a school, Blumenfeld said.
"The reason (that giving) this grant was compelling was the immediacy of the risk and the upside if it (the burn site) could be cleaned up quickly," he said. "We're not getting many projects that rise to this level. And it really is a testimony to the parents that got involved."
Among those was Carrie Monohan, a mother of two children at Yuba River Charter School, which operates at a former Nevada City elementary school.
Monohan, who has a doctorate in forest engineering and hydrology, works for the Sierra Fund conservation group as a science director charged with assessing and advising cleanup of old mines.
She was one of several parents who advanced the argument to the EPA that a new school - near a mining-era burn site - may be the best opportunity to restore the land.
Another volunteer and Yuba River Charter School parent, Jane Sellen, works as the watershed coordinator for a local environmental group, Sierra Streams Institute. She wrote the three grant applications to the EPA, arguing that a reclamation project for a school would greatly benefit a Grass Valley community that bears "a disproportionate burden" of "cleaning up the aftermath of the Gold Rush."
Monohan said the Grass Valley-Nevada City area is full of tainted properties "that go unaddressed." As a result, "most of what is left is open space by default," she said. "Developers can't afford to clean them up. They are our remaining green space."
Monohan said the toxic cleanup required at the new school site "is very manageable and very small compared to the complex contamination" found on other locations evaluated for a campus.
So now 11-year-old daughter Kamis Monohan talks exuberantly about the planned 2 1/ 2-acre student farm at the new location that will replace the school's current small planters for kale, squash, sweet peas and strawberries.
"I'm excited that there are going to be animals there," she said, dreaming of the goats and chickens expected to wander the new campus after it opens in 2015.
The EPA, which nationally awarded $62.5 million in brownfield hazardous subtances cleanup grants, also granted $400,000 to Grass Valley to do toxic pollution assessments on properties from mining areas to old gas station sites.
Last year, the city got a $200,000 grant to develop a mining cleanup plan for its Village of South Hill property, zoned for residential and commercial construction. The city has received $1 million in brownfield grants from the EPA since 2009.
"It shows we're really working with the EPA to do something proactively to clean up our community," said city community development director Tom Last.
Construction on Yuba River Charter School's $8.5 million campus, funded under the 2006 California Proposition 1D school facilities initiative, will begin only after cleanup of the tainted 3-acre site is completed.
Another parent volunteer, geologist Kyle Leach, said he will be keeping a close watch.
Leach is employed on two brownfield projects to clean toxic sites of the 1860s Stiles Mill stamp mill in downtown Nevada City and the 1851-1919 Providence Mine near the city's Deer Creek.
Leach said the 13 acres on which the new charter school will be built by Grass Valley have been "carefully sampled and discerned" to be free of dangerous toxics. He said the nearby cleanup site, for parking and drive up, will be meticulously tested for soil safety.
The geologist, who has two children at the school, says he will make personally sure of that.
Call The Bee's Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.