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Articles Posted in Groundwater contamination

Late last week the Minnesota Department of Health notified several hundred residents of the Como neighborhood that they may be threatened by vapors containing cancer-causing chemicals released from the former General Mills facility on East Hennepin Avenue.   A review of the records shows that General Mills and the State have known about this problem dating back to 1981!  And, believe it or not, General Mills shut off its remedial pumping system 3 years ago.  Now, residents are being told that levels of these cancer-causing chemicals 10 times the State screening standard have been measured in their neighborhood.  They are being asked to allow sampling underneath their homes and are being told that if the chemicals are discovered above “acceptable” levels, General Mills will install sub-slab systems to take care of the problem.  Recent releases from the State concerning the problem can be found here. Critical questions must be answered.  Among others:

  • How long has General Mills and the State known of the vapor intrusion threat to these families?
  • Why hasn’t the problem been cleaned up?

Late this summer Illinois finally implemented regulations designed to consider the vapor intrusion pathway when looking cleanup of polluted sites within the State.  Like our State’s approach to many issues of critical public concern, the action is a day late and a dollar short. Vapor intrusion refers to the migration of harmful industrial chemicals into the air inside structures, including homes.  Industrial pollution frequently contains toxic levels of “volatile” chemicals.  When that pollution finds its way into the soil and groundwater it migrates from those media through the air and into buildings.  And it collects.  And it exposes inhabitants to those chemicals on a 24/7 basis, even while they’re sleeping (unlike polluted water which only exposes people when they consume it or use it for bathing). The threats presented by vapor migration have been understood for decades.  For more than a decade, we’ve been representing families whose homes have been invaded and are threatened by these chemicals.  Not only are there threats of illness, there is significant damage to the value of their properties.  Who would knowingly buy a home with such a problem?  Who would knowingly sell one without fixing the problem? Effective late July 2013, new Illinois Pollution Control Board regs require that owners of properties who are seeking No Further Remediation letters (NFRs) under the State’s Tiered Approach to Corrective Action program examine the vapor intrusion pathway among the other exposure routes (eg, ingestion) when trying to get an NFR.  The State is supposed to consider this when deciding whether to issue an NFR and on what terms. Illinois is a bit late to this party.  Many other States recognized the significance of this problem years ago.  But most importantly, Illinois’ regs have no application whatsoever to the sites which likely present the greatest threat to families in the State – the ones which have already received NFRs under the vastly inept standards of the past.  There is no requirement under these new regs that such sites be re-examined. One of the first cases we brought on behalf of families was one where hundreds of their homes were supplied with polluted groundwater.  The case came to our attention because the State was on the verge of issuing an NFR to a big company armed with high priced lawyers and consultants.  It was lucky indeed that one of the families who had heard about the NFR process decided to test the well in their home and the cancer-causing chemicals dumped by that company for decades were discovered.  As a result of our lawsuit, an enormous problem was uncovered.  The federal EPA got involved.  Many millions were spent on cleanup.  The families were provided with a clean and safe water supply as well as the funds to install systems to protect themselves from the threat of vapor intrusion. There can be little doubt that there are other such sites where NFRs have been issued without an examination of the vapor intrusion threat.  The regs do nothing to address that sleeping giant. The regs suffer from other inadequacies as well.  Vapor plumes can very difficult to detect and to define.  The harmful gases are much like clouds, or puffs of smoke or steam.  Now you see’em; now you don’t.  They migrate much further than the polluted soil or groundwater they come from and can move in different directions.  They are influenced by factors that are highly variable, such as soil moisture, barometric pressure, geology, and things that facilitate movement, like trenches, sewer pipes, and the like.  For that reason investigation, to be meaningful requires a depth of analysis beyond that required by the regs and beyond that within the technical wheelhouses of most consultants and regulators to be sure. Bottom line: these new regs are not cause for celebration.  They are cause for concern.  And forewarned is forearmed.

Our work for contamination victims typically starts out like this: A group of families get “bad news”.  They’re told — often at a community meeting in the basement of a local town hall or church — that their water supply has just been tested, and that dangerous industrial chemicals are in the water they drink and bathe in.  Or maybe that the contamination has slipped inside their homes in a “vapor” form — called “vapor intrusion” — and now it’s been detected in the air they breathe while they’re sleeping at night.  Sometimes, the bad news comes in a certified letter, or the families read about it for the first time in the local newspaper. Sometimes, they are told who the environmental culprit is, sometimes not.  Sometimes, they get a lot of technical blah, blah, blah about how government or the polluter couldn’t possibly have known any earlier that the families were in danger. A bad day for these families, no matter how you slice it. That’s when we get called.  Understandably, these people are shocked, angry, hurt, and feeling betrayed by those whom they had trusted to protect them.  They’re scared, really.  Wouldn’t you be?  So, they want someone who will tell them what’s really going on, and, if necessary, who will fight for them… to fix the problem, or at least try to make things better.  They want some sense of peace and security restored to their homes and neighborhood. They hire us, because this is what we do.  We fight for these families.  We tell them the truth, and enlist the court system to make the polluter clean up and pay for the damage it has done.  And one of the first things we do is we meet with these folks, and start giving them facts in response to their questions.  Questions like:

  • What’s the chemical involved here, and how dangerous is it?
  • How far has it spread?

How long should it take to clean up toxic chemicals after they are spilled?  A week, a month, a year, 5 years? The answer is: “decades, usually.”  Worse, oftentimes, the answer: is “the chemicals will never be all cleaned up”. It’s scary and sad.  But it’s true. Here’s a recent example of a community in the State of New Jersey, where it has taken 53 years after the spilling— not to clean up the chemicals, mind you, but just to create a plan to try to clean them up: On August 23, 2013, the United States Environmental Protection Agency announced a plan to spend $19 million to clean up chemicals first spilled in 1960 by a now-defunct dry cleaner in Wall Township, New Jersey. [see the full article here.]  After being spilled (and they were spilled probably over three decades), the chemicals were allowed to seep into the ground, infiltrate the groundwater aquifer below, and spread out so that the area of contamination is now one mile wide, and two miles long.  This contamination runs in the groundwater underneath homes and business, and releases a toxic vapor that has slipped into the air of some of those structures, requiring that special systems be installed to try to minimize the impact of the vapors that are invading the homes. Here’s the disturbing chronology, documenting how 53 years went by, and yet all we have today is a plan to clean up: 1960: the dry cleaner likely starts spilling chemicals, probably right out the back door 1990: testing of the water in area wells shows high levels of contamination 1997: the local health department learns of the test results 1999: testing begins for the presence of the toxic chemicals in the municipal water well, and in the air inside homes and businesses 2004: the site is entered on the “Superfund” list, marking it as one of the most contaminated sites in the country 2013:  EPA announces a plan to clean up the chemicals And please understand:  the “planned” clean-up, announced just a few days ago, has yet to start.  After it does start, it will probably go on for 20-25 years or more. And–here’s the truly galling part–there is no way that the clean-up will get all of the contamination out of the environment.  Much of what was spilled is now so deeply embedded below the surface, and in the groundwater, that it will never be “all cleaned up”. It took 39 years after the first chemical spilling for the government to do any testing. It took 14 years after those first tests to develop a plan to clean up the chemicals. 75 years after the chemicals were first spilled, they will still not be “all cleaned up”. As bad as this sounds, it is not just a terrible story.  It is a typical story. Typical.

A study published on July 11, 2012, in Environmental Health Perspectives finds a scientific link between prenatal and early childhood exposure to PCE and adult vision problems.  The study was conducted by public health researchers at Boston University.  It studied a population on Cape Cod, Massachusetts exposed to PCE release from vinyl domestic water supply pipes.  PCE is among the most common — and dangerous — chemicals released worldwide due to its prominent use as an industrial cleaning agent and a common dry-cleaning fluid.  PCE has been previously linked to many diseases, including diseases of the vital organs, cancer, and mental illness.  (See, post on this blog dated February 1, 2012, relating to study of this same population finding a link with mental illness.)  Research continues to demonstrate that the threats to people from exposure to chemicals dumped by polluters are more substantial than those responsible for protecting us admit.  To read this study click on this link.  Prenatal and Early Childhood Exposure to Tetrachloroethylene and Adult Vision.

Thirsty? A drink of clean water is available in most places in our wonderful country.  It’s available on tap in our homes, at water fountains in parks and in our children’s schools.  Cool, clean aqua is available in the water coolers in our offices.  If you are thirsty – go get a glass. A pretty simple concept, right?  Drinking water is healthy and the best hydration option.  If you are thirsty or hot or parched, go get yourself a glass of water. Sadly, in other areas of the world, this simple concept is not even an option. According to the World Water Council, 1.1 billion of the world’s population live without clean drinking water.  2.6 billion people lack adequate sanitation, mostly because they don’t have access to clean water.   3,900 children die every day from water-borne diseases, i.e., “dirty” water. Pretty scary statistics, right?  Still thirsty? In places like Zambia, Africa – the families living there do not have access to a clean drinking supply.  They don’t have clean water to irrigate their gardens to grow food, and their children are especially threatened by water-borne diseases and poor nutrition caused by this lack of clean water. The Pollution Lawyers are a proud financial supporter of the Rotary Club of Naperville Sunrise clean water projects. Our financial support will continue to strengthen a long term commitment by the Rotary Club of Naperville Sunrise to clean water projects in Zambia, Africa. Administered through the Tikondane Community Centre in Chipata, the funds support a program aimed at improving the basic health and nutrition of a population of 20,000. The program constructs wells that supply clean water for drinking and cooking as well as to irrigate gardens that produce vegetables to supplement a meager diet.   This money also provides for education and skills training, latrines, sustainable protein sources, and a new clean water well and irrigation system.  Children in particular benefit from a reduced rate of illnesses and the nutrition increases their ability to learn at school, which is also provided by Tikondane and the Rotary Club of Naperville Sunrise. So, maybe the next time you fill up at the water cooler or help yourself to a public water fountain, or even water the flowers in your garden, you will stop and reflect on how fortunate most of us are in America to have access to this water.  Billions of others aren’t as fortunate. (Blog post contributed by Johannah Drerup) Thirsty? A drink of clean water is available in most places in our wonderful country.  It’s available on tap in our homes, at water fountains in parks and in our children’s schools.  Cool, clean aqua is available in the water coolers in our offices.  If you are thirsty – go get a glass. A pretty simple concept, right?  Drinking water is healthy and the best hydration option.  If you are thirsty or hot or parched, go get yourself a glass of water. Sadly, in other areas of the world, this simple concept is not even an option. According to the World Water Council, 1.1 billion of the world’s population live without clean drinking water.  2.6 billion people lack adequate sanitation, mostly because they don’t have access to clean water.   3,900 children die every day from water-borne diseases, i.e., “dirty” water. Pretty scary statistics, right?  Still thirsty? In places like Zambia, Africa – the families living there do not have access to a clean drinking supply.  They don’t have clean water to irrigate their gardens to grow food, and their children are especially threatened by water-borne diseases and poor nutrition caused by this lack of clean water. The Pollution Lawyers are a proud financial supporter of the Rotary Club of Naperville Sunrise clean water projects. Our financial support will continue to strengthen a long term commitment by the Rotary Club of Naperville Sunrise to clean water projects in Zambia, Africa. Administered through the Tikondane Community Centre in Chipata, the funds support a program aimed at improving the basic health and nutrition of a population of 20,000. The program constructs wells that supply clean water for drinking and cooking as well as to irrigate gardens that produce vegetables to supplement a meager diet.   This money also provides for education and skills training, latrines, sustainable protein sources, and a new clean water well and irrigation system.  Children in particular benefit from a reduced rate of illnesses and the nutrition increases their ability to learn at school, which is also provided by Tikondane and the Rotary Club of Naperville Sunrise. So, maybe the next time you fill up at the water cooler, help yourself to a public water fountain, or even water the flowers in your garden, you will stop and reflect on how fortunate most of us are in America to have access to this water.  Billions of others aren’t as fortunate. (Blog post contributed by:  Johannah Drerup)

A study published in the journal Environmental Health on January 20, 2012, finds a scientific link between exposure to PCE in early childhood and the development of mental illness.   The study was conducted by some of the most prominent and respected toxicologists and public health researchers in the nation.  It studied a population on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  The subjects were exposed to PCE  in their drinking water supplies between 1969 and 1983 during early childhood.  The PCE was released from vinyl water distribution pipes on Cape Cod.  The study found an increased incidence of mental illness, including depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and schizophrenia in the subjects.  The findings of the study are extremely significant from a public health perspective.  PCE is among the most common — and dangerous — chemicals released worldwide due to its widespread use as an industrial cleaning solvent and as the most common dry cleaning fluid.  PCE has been previously linked to many diseases, including diseases of the vital organs and cancer.  This groundbreaking research shows once again what many of us in the field already know and expect — the threats to people from exposure to chemicals indiscriminately handled by polluters are more substantial than those responsible for protecting us are willing to admit.  A copy of the study can be found here.

In every case we have the same worry:  “what is this contamination doing to the children?”  Whether the contamination is TCE in drinking water coming out of the kitchen tap and showerhead; PCE in “vapor” form in the air that the family breathes every moment in the home; or arsenic in the dirt in the family’s front yard where the children play, we worry most about what these chemicals are doing to the children. Because we know that these very dangerous chemicals are most dangerous of all to children. Each of The Pollution Lawyers – – Norm Berger, Mike Hayes, Ed Manzke, and me (Shawn Collins) – – is a lawyer second… and a father first.  We understand that every parent’s most consuming duty is to keep his/her child safe, and we feel personally the anxiety of every parent we have come to meet in our cases that get hit with the horrible news that the home and neighborhood in which they have been raising their children is not the safe place they thought it was. So we were especially disturbed to learn recently that New York schoolchildren had been attending The Bronx New School for a 6 month period last year during which school officials knew (but the kids’ parents did not) that there were high levels of cancer-causing TCE in the air that the kids were breathing at the school every day.  In fact, we wrote several blogs about it.  [see those blogs here] Enter CNN, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and his producer, Jen Christensen.  They have been investigating contaminated schools as part of their Toxic America series and asked if we would contribute to their TV story.  I was honored to be interviewed by Dr. Gupta’s team, and wanted you to know about the story CNN ran on “CNN Presents” this past weekend.  They were kind enough to include me in the story, and you can watch it here if you’d like (my contribution is at time 3:20 of this video). We have sadly learned from years of fighting pollution and polluters that when children are in environmental harms’ way, it is irresponsible adults who have put them there.  We believe that the CNN story sheds important light on a serious problem threatening many American children, and truly hope that, through this story and the work of dedicated people, our children will be much better protected against dangerous chemicals in their homes, neighborhoods, and schools.

EPA has finally acknowledged that fracking can cause groundwater contamination.  In a draft report issued this month concerning an investigation into the contamination of a drinking water aquifer in Wyoming, the EPA concluded “. . . .  the explanation best fitting the data for the deep monitoring wells is that constituents associated with hydraulic fracturing have been released into the wind River drinking water aquifer. . . .” (Click on EPA_ReportOnPavillion_Dec-8-2011 for the entire report)  EPA has proven, once again, that if it walks like a duck and quacks like one . . . .  it’s a duck.             In recent years the oil and gas fat cats have been making millions and millions of dollars by injecting fluids containing dangerous chemicals into the ground to cheaply recover previously unrecoverable oil and gas.  And, rather than admit the obvious — that this can create serious environmental problems through the uncontrolled release of harmful chemicals — they have followed their time-tested approach.  They deny the obvious.  They obfuscate the facts.  They support bogus legislation to protect themselves (like the Texas law allowing them to keep fracking chemicals secret).  And, they brand as “job killers” people who demand sound scientific analysis before launching into potentially catastrophic action (the gas industry recently commissioned a study finding that they created over 600,000 jobs so they can pre-empt those who would question their unfettered operation).  Didn’t we just go through this in the Gulf?             The EPA study proves that before we allow the industry to launch headlong into fracking operations everywhere they think they can make a buck, a thorough scientific analysis must be undertaken by people interested in protecting the humans and the environment likely to be affected.  It must be done on a project-specific basis.  The recent events in the Gulf have taught us that industry cannot be trusted where there is big money on the line.  Is our government any different?  We can do better as a nation.  We can create jobs responsibly, and without sacrificing our future.

You may have heard that President Obama is trying to get himself re-elected.  What you may not have heard is what US EPA Chief, Lisa Jackson, is doing to help him. Last month, the President sent out an invitation to attend his money-raising events in San Francisco.  The invitation said that, by giving $5,000, contributors would receive a “Season Pass” to so-called “VIP events,” and that:

  • “The Season Pass is a monthly speaker series of top-level people from the administration and campaign who will come to the Bay Area, at least once a month, to have more intimate, in-depth gatherings with Pass holders”
  • “…The idea is to give a smaller group of people a personal introduction to a lot of amazing people as well as VIP status at the big events (i.e., smaller receptions, preferred seating) and have the chance for more substantive discussions and interaction.”
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