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More concerns about Elmira High School contamination


Toxics Targeting President Walter Hang discusses industrial contamination on the Elmira High School property. Behind Hang is Miller Pond on Elmira's Southside, where contamination from the high school site, a former industrial property, was first detected.
(Photo: Jeff Murray / Staff photo)

Residents will learn more Wednesday about planned environmental cleanup at the Elmira High School property, but in the meantime, a data analyst has come across what he said is alarming information about serious industrial contamination that hasn't been addressed.

Walter Hang, president of Ithaca environmental database firm Toxics Targeting, gave a public presentation April 12 about health concerns at Elmira High School, which was built on a former industrial site.

Since that time, Hang said, he has been flooded with messages from former students or staff members at what was once Southside High School, detailing a host of health issues they encountered.

That prompted Hang to write a freedom of information request for more information from the state, and he said the documents he obtained provide frightening proof that despite cleanup efforts, there is still massive contamination under the school property.

Elmira High School was built on a site once used for heavy industry. Areas of the school property, including Room 127, have shown concerning levels of hazardous contamination. Parts of the property have already undergone remediation.
(Photo: Kate Collins / Staff photo)

"About 8,000 square feet of the football field and adjoining areas are known to be contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, a hazardous waste. It's extensively polluted," Hang said. "There are also semi-volatile organic compounds. This is public information but has never been brought to light.

"Enough is enough. This should be a Class 1 site — an imminent danger that can cause irreparable damage to the public or environment," he said. "Two weeks ago, I didn't have these detailed analytical findings. I was shocked by what I found."

The Elmira City School District obtained the South Main Street property in 1977 and built what was then known as Southside High School.

Prior to that, the property was home to several industries, including Remington Rand, over the course of nearly a century.

It wasn't until 1995, when oil discovered in nearby Miller Pond was traced back to the former industrial site, that officials became concerned about what hidden dangers were lurking beneath the high school property.

Unisys, the successor to Remington Rand, agreed to clean up the site and worked with the state Department of Environmental Conservation and state Health Department on remediation.

Much of the identified contamination has since been cleaned up, but those efforts haven't gone nearly far enough to address the scope of the problem, said former Chemung County legislator Andy Patros, who sponsored the April 12 information session at the Elmira Holiday Inn Riverview.

"I believe as a community we need to call for action, and not just wait for another study nor more investigation. Cleanup must begin now," Patros said. "This is where all of our students from across the entire Elmira City School District will spend their high school days."

Patros also believes the surrounding area, including Miller's Pond, has never been comprehensively assessed for toxic impacts from decades of heavy industry and also needs more attention.

The school district has worked closely with Unisys, the DEC and consulting firm Sterling Environmental, according to Superintendent Hillary Austin.

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.

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

The DEC will hold a public meeting Wednesday to offer more information about what is planned for this summer's work.

That's fine, but it doesn't go nearly far enough, Hang said.

He submitted a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo asking that the Elmira High School site be given top priority and that a full, comprehensive cleanup of the site take place as soon as possible.

"I was just overwhelmed by the number of people who suffered terrible health problems. I was contacted by so many people after the meeting. It's heartbreaking stuff," Hang said. "The area that has been remediated is very small. They did a good job on those small areas, but the problem is there is so much more pollution that hasn't been dug up. This should have happened decades ago.

"Enforce the law. There is a responsible party. Make them clean it up," he said. "The rule in New York is the polluter pays. This hasn't been enforced at this site. DEC has tolerated delays. That's why I'm going to the governor."