By Shawn Collins of The Collins Law Firm, P.C.
Last week, New York's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) announced that chemical contamination discovered at the former Triple Cities Metal Finishing plant in Elmira, New York "presents a significant threat to public health and/or the environment". DEC has determined that industrial chemicals---including TCE---once used at the plant in its electroplating operation have contaminated the property's "soil, groundwater and soil vapor at levels exceeding applicable standards."1
Cutting through the bureaucrat-speak, this means that nasty chemicals once used at the plant may have spread to the nearby neighborhood, and may now be underneath, or even inside, the homes there.
While DEC says it wants to find out if, in fact, that has happened---and that is a good and necessary step for DEC to take---DEC must take that step urgently.
In my experience, it can take government years or even decades to find out if dangerous chemicals have spread from an industrial site into a neighborhood. There are lots of reasons why it takes so long---complicated science, lack of money, political resistance to learning the truth, etc.---but none of the reasons is a good one.
Here, TCE---which is but one of the chemicals already found in soil, groundwater and soil vapor at the Elmira plant---is a carcinogen. It is associated with cancer of the kidney, liver, cervix and lymphatic system. Elmira families may have TCE on their properties or in the air they breathe in their homes. These families should not have to wait years to find out if this has happened or, hopefully, to get the peace of mind that comes from finding out that the chemicals did not reach their neighborhood after all.
I understand that the Elmira area is served by a municipal water system, which is very good news. It means that any of the TCE or other chemicals that might have seeped into the groundwater over the years is not entering homes through faucets and shower heads.
But that isn't the whole story. Because TCE (among other chemicals) "volatilizes"---meaning TCE turns into vapor or gas---it can migrate upward from contaminated groundwater, and slip quietly into the breathing space of homes sitting above the groundwater. This is a simple graphic depiction of this process called "vapor intrusion":
Graphic Depiction by Treehugger2
And because TCE is colorless and odorless, people in those homes can be breathing TCE vapor without knowing it.
Of course, I am not saying that TCE or other chemicals are in the homes in Elmira, New York. I dearly hope that they are not. But the DEC's conclusion that the TCE is already contaminating soil, groundwater and soil vapor on nearby plant property; that DEC does not yet know how far the contamination may have spread; and that all of this poses a "significant threat to public health and/or the environment", means that there is not time to waste to find out if the people are in danger.
Testing to see if TCE or other volatile chemicals are in homes near the plant can begin this week, if DEC wants it to. There is no good reason to wait, let alone to wait years, as government investigations often do.