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Health concerns at Elmira High School focus of meeting


There are lingering concerns about industrial wastes buried under Elmira High School.
(Photo: Jeff Murray / Staff photo)

Peter Keenan was a two-sport standout when he attended what was then Elmira Southside High school in the early 1990s.

Today, Keenan has days when he's happy just to be able to get out of bed.

Keenan, who graduated from Southside in 1994, suffers from autoimmune disorders that led to an array of health problems, and he believes exposure to long-buried industrial waste beneath the school property is the culprit.

"I'm 41 years old and I've had two hip replacements. I had a hip replacement before I had a kid," Keenan said. "My body is attacking itself. They don't know why. I know Southside was built on a Superfund site. Why send children to school there? Those contaminants don't go away. Look at all the sick people who have gone to school there."

Former Chemung County legislator Andy Patros wants answers as well.

Patros, whose curiosity was ignited by a March 1 Star-Gazette story about the specter of abandoned industrial sites in the Southern Tier, will hold a public information meeting Thursday to take a closer look at what is now Elmira High School.

Patros paid for a room at the Elmira Holiday Inn Riverview and invited environmental activist Walter Hang of Ithaca to speak because he wants the community to remain engaged about this issue.

"I’m not looking to portray the (Elmira City) school district as villain. They are abiding by what the state Health Department and state Department of Environmental Conservation require," Patros said. "At the end of the day, the community may want to organize in a regular manner and push the question 'Is enough being done?' If everything is OK, why do they have to continue to clean up? It's a legitimate question. Where are we going to be with that facility in another 15 or 20 years?"

A Toxic Legacy

Demolition of the polluted Remington Rand factory cleared the way for the Elmira High School in the late 1970s. (Photo: FILE PHOTO)

In 1977, the Elmira City School District purchased the property on South Main Street that was once home to Remington Rand, a business machine manufacturing company.

At the time, nobody seemed concerned the property was polluted from more than a century of heavy industrial activity.

But more than 40 years later, testing at the school confirms contamination shrugged off decades ago remain a very real problem today.

Last summer contractors removed more than 6,500 tons of soil tainted by PCBs and other chemical hazards from under the school’s tennis courts and south parking lot.

Contaminated soil under the east parking lot will be excavated and trucked to hazardous waste landfills this summer.

TCE fumes penetrating the school’s foundation were detected in the building at the state safety threshold or slightly below before a special system was installed in 2014 to vent them from beneath the property.

Walter Hang

The final phase of the cleanup, under the school track and playing field, is yet to be scheduled.

That will not likely be the end of the problem, however, according to Hang, who runs Toxics Targeting, a firm that specializes in checking the environmental history of sites for commercial interests and other stakeholders.

"It’s just shocking how much toxic pollution has been identified over many, many years. That site has never been completely investigated or remediated," Hang said. "I hope in the wake of reporting citizens will now have the opportunity to review government data about this site and to ask questions and be able to look at what is known and what’s not known, so this site can be cleaned up from top to bottom once and for all."

School district response

School and health officials cite findings by state and federal agencies showing “no apparent public health hazard” at the school, because people are not likely to come in contact with the buried chemical hazards.

Past studies showed no unusual patterns of cancers overall, with the exception of an unexplained spike in testicular cancer among students and recent graduates from 1997 to 2000. That group included Patros’ son, Tom Patros, who recovered from the illness.

The school district has not worked directly with Patros or Hang, but has worked closely for years with Unisys, Remington Rand's successor on the site, along with the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Sterling Environmental, according to Superintendent Hillary Austin.

That combined expertise has provided extensive oversight and cooperation during the cleanup process, Austin said.

"There is a lot of planning, monitoring, and coordination that goes along with remediation work and we take our lead from the experts," she said. "Our capital projects have been accommodated by all involved parties and remediation work has been done accordingly, including the most recent parking lot replacement in the front of the building and tennis court projects."

DEC will host its own public meeting next month to review plans for this summer at Elmira High School, Austin said.

Concern for the future

Former students and others still have nagging doubts.

Jill Wortman is among those who question the wisdom of locating a high school on top of a stew of industrial waste — and later moving all upper grade students there when the district consolidated its two high schools into one.

Wortman, who now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, graduated from Southside High School in 1992 and has battled a host of health problems ever since.

This map shows Elmira High School and historical industrial sites. (Photo: PROVIDED BY WALTER HANG)

"I did have skin cancer and had a tumor removed. I have Sjogren's syndrome. It's an autoimmune disease," Wortman said. "I have a long list of diseases. I’m on 15 different medications that all have side effects of their own.

"They had to know these chemicals could make their way into students' systems and they did nothing about it," she said. "How many times can you choose to ignore putting kids lives at risk? First you buy an inexpensive piece of land knowing you are putting it on top of toxic soil, to save money. Then they closed Elmira Free Academy and put all the kids there? How do you keep making that choice?"

Keenan, who is also running for a seat on the Chemung County Legislature, is worried the county is making the same mistake the school district did by agreeing to take potentially radioactive fracking waste at the county landfill in Lowman.

"There's a reason nobody wanted it here," Keenan said. "There's poison being dropped in here that my great grandchildren will have to clean up."

Regarding his alma mater, Keenan hopes people attend Thursday's meeting and demand answers about the school's safety.

"People are fed up with it. There needs to be push back," he said. "If my choice is sending my kids to (Elmira) High School or Notre Dame, they are going to Notre Dame. There is no way I am risking the health of my children to go to that school."