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Camp-LejeuneA United States Marine Corps base in Onslow County, North Carolina was the site of “the worst example of water contamination this country has ever seen.” Camp Lejeune is the second largest Marine base in the United States. Marines and their families lived on base for short periods of time learning necessary skills, since it was an amphibious training base. Then, they would leave to be stationed elsewhere. Little did they know that they were being exposed to toxic water in their temporary homes.

From the 1950s through the 1980s, people living or working at Camp Lejeune were exposed to contaminated drinking water from multiple sites on base. For instance, prior to 1986, water coming from two treatment plants—Tarawa Terrace and Hadnot Point—contained volatile organic compounds. The contamination primarily included perchloroethylene (PCE), trichloroethylene (TCE), dichloroethylene (DCE), vinyl chloride, and benzene. Throughout the base, the drinking water contained toxic chemicals at levels 240 to 3,400 times higher than what safety standards permit.

And, the result of the exposure to those contaminants was tragic. Drinking that contaminated water likely increased victims’ risk of multiple types of cancer, including leukemia, breast cancer, bladder cancer, kidney cancer, liver cancer, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It also put victims at risk for other diseases and negative health effects, including Parkinson’s disease and miscarriages.

Something really wrong happened here. Bronx Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott just announced the closing of the Bronx New School.  Walcott said that the soil at the school– and the air that the kids breathe at the school–are soaked with a carcinogen known as trichloroethylene, or TCE.  And not just a little bit of TCE.  Contamination in the air was up to 10,000 times so-called “safe” levels. [See this 8/19/11 media article]. The revelation that a school is contaminated is always jarring.  Last week, I wrote about air contamination (high levels of lead) at a public elementary school in Chicago’s Pilsen community (see my blog from last week).  That school’s 500 children are threatened by having to breathe this lead, and it was particularly galling to learn that Illinois environmental officials had long-resisted the requests of local families to test the air at the school. But, for as bad as the Pilsen situation is, this situation at the Bronx New School is even worse…..maybe the worst I have ever heard of.  Why?  One reason is that school officials knew since last February of the TCE contamination at the school–and then waited 6 months to tell parents about it.  In other words, 300 kids went to the Bronx New School for most of last semester, at a time when school officials knew that it was not safe for them to be there.  That’s an outrage. But even more outrageous is the fact that there should never have been a school there in the first place.  The Bronx New School is, believe it or not, a former industrial plant that was known to have used TCE and other dangerous chemicals for perhaps as long as 70 years.  Ignoring this huge red flag, the Board of Education leased the site 20 years ago.  Then, despite knowing that it had been an industrial site, and despite a public record documenting the use thereof dangerous chemicals, the Board evidently never bothered to do what any D+  science student would know to do:  test the property before you start sending kids there for 7 hours a day. Here’s how reckless this is:  in a terrific piece of reporting, Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News describes how he hired an environmental firm which, 24 hours later, had produced a 241-page report documenting the dangerous chemical history at the industrial site that would become the Bronx New School.  In other words, Mr. Gonzalez discovered in a single day what the school board had failed to discover in twenty years. Rage and fear and guilt now dominate the thoughts of the parents who trusted school officials and sent their children to the New Bronx School for the past 20 years.  Those families–and evidently there were many–who have wondered whether the headaches, dizziness and other illnesses afflicting their children were connected to the school today have good reason to be afraid….and angry. Doctors are now advising that their children be tested for evidence of exposure to the chemicals known to pollute the soil and air at the school.  Is there anything more awful? Sadly, what I have learned from years of fighting pollution and polluters, is that when children are in environmental harms’ way, it is irresponsible adults who have put them there.  For the children at the Pilsen school, it’s a polluter down the road who is belching lead into the air that they breathe, and the so-called “environmental protectors” in Illinois government who so callously refused for years to take seriously these kids’ health.  For the children at the New Bronx School, it’s the owner of the highly-contaminated industrial site who thought it would be OK to lease it out for a school, and, mainly, the apparently reckless people at the school board who–charged with protecting the lives of these children–never thought that their lives might be in danger at a school located on a toxin-laced industrial site. When we hear news like this, we often say, “there should be a law…..people should not be allowed to do this to children.”  Well, as it turns out, we don’t need a new law.  Right now–without putting any new laws on the books– people are not allowed to do this to children.  There are environmental laws that forbid sending children to a school like this, for example. There are criminal laws, too.  And, particularly in the case of the New Bronx School, prosecutors need to look hard at using them.  All over this country, there are laws that put people in jail for “recklessly endangering” the lives of children.  These laws forbid adults from dimwittedly putting children in harms’ way.  Especially when the adults have the duty to keep those kids safe.  After all, these children are not strangers to the adults who run the school board and the school.  They are the very children whom those adults are paid to protect. I’m having a hard time imagining the excuse that will work here.  And I’m having a hard time imagining that, unless someone really gets punished for what the adults did to the children at the Bronx New School, we will be a society that can truly claim to give a damn about protecting its children.

If you have reason to research how chemicals can harm your family-say, for example, your water supply has been found to be contaminated-please be careful. There is a lot of “information” available on the internet, but not all of it is reliable. In the unreliable category are studies performed or funded by the companies who manufacture those chemicals, or use them in their industrial processes. They have hundreds of millions, maybe billions, of dollars to gain by convincing us that their chemicals are safe. And while this extraordinary financial stake does not necessarily make their research false, common sense tells us that it may well cause them to resolve the scientific grey areas in favor of the conclusion that chemicals are safe, or not as dangerous as perhaps they truly are. That alone should cause you to look elsewhere for information to which you can trust your family’s health.

Who should you trust?

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), for one. NRDC is a non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers, and other professionals who approach health and environmental issues from the people’s point of view. They take no money from polluters and others who might want to minimize environmental dangers to human beings. They advocate for those things that protect people, and insist that all doubts about, say, whether a chemical is dangerous, be resolved in favor of protecting human life and health, unless and until the doubts can be conclusively resolved to prove such protection unnecessary.

los-angeles-231612_1920.jpgIt’s such a compelling story: A 10-years-in-the-making plan to pour $1 billion into the redevelopment of Jordan Downs, a once-dangerous, crime-ridden public housing project in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, that had been the stage for nationally-televised riots in the 1960s. The idea is to convert what had been 700 badly scarred public housing units into a beautiful, mixed-income neighborhood of 1,400 units, shops, and park space. A real monument to progress and understanding.

But as the re-development was being launched, a plume of TCE contamination was discovered under the development, threatening, according to the Physicians for Social Responsibility, the health of children and pregnant mothers who would live there.

Now what? A billion dollars is on the line.

For the last 17 years, I and a team of lawyers have been representing families threatened by TCE contamination in their water supply, in the groundwater underneath their homes, and in the air inside their homes (called “vapor intrusion”). Recent reports in the media, unfortunately, describe how TCE, disposed of years ago in Nonantum, Massachusetts has seeped into the groundwater about 60 feet below the surface, and, after turning into a gas (‘vapor”), has risen back up through the soil and intruded into the breathing space of area homes.

Having known many hundreds of families over the years who were horrified to receive such news about TCE contamination in their homes and communities, my heart goes out to the families of Nonantum. I know many of them are scared- “What can this chemical do to me and my family?” they will ask. They have important questions that deserve answers such as: “How long has this contamination been in my neighborhood, and in my home, and who is responsible?” And they might well be angry- “Why didn’t someone in government protect us from this, or at least warn us that this could happen?”

With exactly these anxieties in mind, I want to provide some information to the people of Nonantum who are dealing with this, so they might understand what is going on, and how better to protect themselves. Here are some important things I have learned over the years:

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. Now. 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 showerheads. 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 no 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. 1 Star Gazette – “DEC: Former Plant in Elmira a Threat to Public Health” (April 22, 2015) 2 TreeHugger – “Ask TreeHugger: What is Vapor Intrusion?” (March 15, 2007)

For decades, hundreds of homes in a section of Union, New York known as Endicott have been sitting above a plume of TCE and PCE contaminated groundwater.  TCE and PCE are man-made solvents historically used by corporations to strip grease and grime off metal parts.  Endicott is just south of a former IBM manufacturing facility that released thousands of gallons of these solvents into the environment.  One of these solvents, TCE, has recently been classified as a known human carcinogen by the USEPA.  Although the dangers of drinking TCE and PCE laced-water have been documented for years, less research has been devoted to the inhalation of TCE and PCE.  Endicott, with its long history of groundwater contamination, provided researchers with valuable insights into the dangers of inhaling TCE and PCE. The Endicott Study, conducted by researchers at New York’s State Department of Health is one of the first studies to examine the health effects of breathing PCE and TCE contaminated air from vapor intrusion.  Vapor intrusion is the process whereby TCE and PCE in groundwater beneath homes vaporizes and moves up through the ground and into the air inside homes. Department of Health Researchers looked at health statistics from 1,440 live births to mothers living above the Endicott groundwater plume between 1978 and 2002 and compared them to health-related statistics for children born throughout New York.  Their findings were alarming.  The researchers found that children born in the Endicott Study area had higher rates of adverse health issues including heart defects and low birth weight.  In addition to these findings, a previous health statistics review of the Endicott area by the Department of Health also found a significant elevation in the number of kidney and testicular cancers. This study is significant because it provides tangible support for the proposition that inhalation of TCE and PCE via vapor intrusion can be dangerous to human health.  Our hope is that the Endicott Study, which is slated for publication in Environmental Health Perspectives, will be used by state and federal environmental and public health regulators as support for tougher clean-up standards at contaminated industrial sites and to force the corporate polluters responsible for environmental contamination to respond quickly to protect homeowners and their families from the health threats posed by vapor intrusion.

Before we get to the broken promise, let’s first re-cap DOE’s disregard for the health of the children who have attended The Bronx New School for the last 20 years [feel free to visit my previous blogs on this subject dated: 8/30, 8/26, and 8/22. ] (1) In 1992, DOE signs a 20-year lease to convert an old industrial site – – with a history of heavy use of toxic chemicals – –  into an elementary school (which became The Bronx New School). (2) Even though there are abundant, publicly-available records showing that the site may be contaminated, DOE does not take the couple of hours needed to find and read these records. (3) Likewise, DOE does not test – – at a cost of only a few thousand dollars – –  the old industrial site, to find out if it was contaminated… before DOE sends young children, teachers and administrators there for 8 hours every day. (4) Nearly twenty years go by.  Many hundreds of students attend, and then graduate from, The Bronx New School.  Still no testing. (5) Until January 2011. That’s when the 20-year lease on The Bronx New School site is up, and DOE wants to release.  DOE says that now it must do environmental testing.  Before a new lease can be signed.  Note that, for the past 20 years, concern for the health of the students never made DOE think that it should do environmental testing.  DOE says that there’s a law that mandates testing before re-leasing a building.  Evidently, there is no law that forbids making a school out of a contaminated old industrial site. . . or that mandates reading public records or testing to see if a site is safe before sending children there in the first place. (6) Environmental tests taken in January of this year – – and then again in March, April, and May – – reveal extremely high levels of a chemical known as “TCE” in the air in the cafeteria, hallway, and basement of the school.  Levels up to 10,000 times what NewYork City’s own Department of Health says is safe. TCE is one nasty chemical.  It’s a known cancer-causer.   But it’s colorless and odorless, so you don’t see or smell that it’s in the air.  Adults, and especially children, should not be breathing TCE.  The immune systems of children do not process toxins well, and so the toxins do more damage in children than in adults. (7) But DOE does not tell the parents of the children attending the school, or the school staff, about the TCE they are breathing.  Instead, DOE had the kids and staff finish out the school year (another 6 months), continuing to breathe the air that DOE (but no one else) knew was laced with a highly toxic chemical. (8) In early August of this year – – well after the end of the school year – – a seemingly contrite Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott tells horrified parents for the first time of the TCE contamination, and that it is so bad that their children will no longer be attending school there. And then, on August 18, in response to public demands that former Bronx New School students be located and informed that their health might have been jeopardized while they attended the school, Wolcott promised two things.  First, he promised to make a master list of former students, so that they could be kept abreast of developments about the contamination at the school.  Second, he promised to hold additional informational meetings, presumably to share new information as it became available, and to answer questions from these suddenly very worried families.  And they have good reason to be worried, alarmed even.  The TCE levels detected at the school earlier this year – – if they are representative of past levels – – are high enough to cause serious illness to those breathing them for hours each day.  Also, because many years can pass between exposure to TCE and manifestation of the illness it can cause, students who attended the school years ago are right to believe that good health today does not mean they are “out of the woods” for contracting TCE-related disease. Walcott’s promise of a list and informational meetings was made to a deserving and emotionally vulnerable audience. . . to quell their outrage and anguish.  The promise of the list was especially important.  The list would serve as a database of alumni of the New Bronx School, to allow for medical monitoring of those former students.  It would keep track of sickness patterns, and help these families force the state to take responsibility for medical treatment if it can be shown that a former student’s illness was caused by exposure to TCE at the school. Walcott’s promise was made almost 4 months ago.  But today?  No list.  And no meetings. Current and former Bronx New School families have reminded Walcott of his promises. . . in phone calls and public statements they have made to try and reclaim his and DOE’s attention.  But Walcott will not meet with them (instead meeting only with a select group of parents comprising the Parents’ Association – – a meeting which reportedly did not include parents of the former students).  [See this December 21 Riverdale Press article: Parents say DOE ignored them after school toxin exposure] What’s going on with Walcott and DOE?  Why are they hiding from these families?  More importantly, what are they hiding from these families? Why make promises to such vulnerable people, and then break them?  There is no one in the entire New York school system more deserving of DOE’s time and attention than these families. Since 1992, DOE failed in its most fundamental responsibility to protect the children of The New Bronx School.  Now, it’s failing to protect them. . . again.  How dare DOE stiff-arm these families as they try to understand what has happened to their children.

This is a hopeful story.  But it must first wind its way through some seemingly discouraging territory.  Hang with me, though, and we’ll get to the hopeful part.  I promise. Here’s the discouraging part: You cannot trust your government to tell you that your air or water is contaminated.  Or to protect you against the contamination. That’s a terrible thing to say.  But it must be said because it’s true.  Here’s just some of the evidence that we’ve seen:

Our First Case:  Early on, the state EPA was about to give a polluted industrial property an environmental “clean bill of health” (called a “No Further Remediation” letter).  This means that EPA was about to declare that the nasty chemicals (mostly TCE) dumped on the company’s property could not migrate off of it in groundwater.  We didn’t believe it.  So we spent our own money to test the groundwater in our clients’ neighborhood across the street. We found TCE all over the place.  In fact, as more testing over the next few months would prove, TCE from the industrial property had traveled almost three miles off-site.

Our Most Recent Case:  In a case, we just filed in Madison, Wisconsin, the state’s environmental agency (the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: “DNR”) earlier this year asked a local manufacturer to test in and around the homes of some of the families living behind the company to see if a chemical (mostly PCE) spilled years ago on company property had moved off-site.  The testing turned up PCE almost everywhere they looked… in the dirt in the families’ yards; in the groundwater running under the neighborhood; in gas underneath some of the homes; and even in the air that people breathe literally inside one of the homes. So, in forcing this testing, the government did its job, right? Hardly. DNR knew since at least 1994 that the company’s property was contaminated with PCE, and that there were families living only 50 feet away.  And yet DNR waited nearly 17 years to see if any of these families had been affected by the PCE.

After slow-walking the process consistent with its decades-long standard operating procedure,  the U.S. EPA  finally recognized what credible scientists have been saying for many years: exposure to TCE causes cancer.  The earth is not flat after all.   On September 28, EPA released the final health assessment for trichloroethylene (TCE) to the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) database. IRIS is a human health assessment program that evaluates the latest science on chemicals in our environment. The final assessment characterizes the chemical as carcinogenic to humans and as a human non-cancer health hazard. So, what does this mean for us? TCE is the single most common industrial chemical which is polluting groundwater in this country.  Not only is it leaking from landfills all over the country, but it is also finding its way into our communities from reckless dumping practices at thousands of industrial sites from coast to coast. Because it is highly volatile, in addition to invading our ever-diminishing water supplies, it seeps into our homes in vapor form and poisons the air we breathe 24-7.  For those of us who have been fighting corporate polluters, this action means that we should no longer have to deal with one of the many baseless arguments we see in case after case –  that TCE is harmless.  And that’s a good thing. But, much more action on the part of those whose job it is to protect us must follow. Among other actions, EPA must act promptly to reduce the Maximum Contaminant Level for TCE, the amount of this poison that EPA allows to be present in our public water supplies. The MCL currently stands at 5 parts per billion for TCE, which is too high.  Any amount is too high.  EPA recognizes this and for years has had its goal for this chemical (MCLG) set at zero.  While industry pressure is likely to prevent EPA from reducing the MCL to zero, where it should be, prompt reduction of the drinking water standard must go forward.  So, we fight on.   Click here to read EPA’s release.

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