You are here

Elmira High School to undergo more hazardous waste cleanup


Kris Manns speaks at a question and answer period at the meeting Wednesday night, May 2, 2018, about pollution removal at Elmira High School.
(Photo: Staff Photo/Tom Wilber)

The latest plan to remove contaminated soil from under the Elmira High School was met with skepticism and anger at an informational meeting packed with residents and parents Wednesday night.

More than 150 people streamed into a large hall at the Holiday Inn Riverview to hear the next step to remove soil laced with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) beneath parking lots at the school.

The meeting included a panel representing the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the state Department of Health, and Unisys Corp., the company responsible for the cleanup under a 2017 order by the DEC.

Between 35 to 40 trucks loads a day will remove 28,000 tons of polluted soil from under one of the parking areas and bus loop, according to the plan.

Work will go from 7 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. six days a week from the day school lets out for the summer to the day before it begins in September, said Kevin Krueger, a spokesman for Unysis. Sundays are possible makeup days in case the project slips behind schedule.

Precautions will be taken to control dust and access to the site, officials said.

PCBs have also been detected under the track and playing fields, and Trichloroethylene (TCE), under the school.

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.

Pollution under the track and playing fields will be left for another phase of the project depending on the capital improvement schedule of school.

“The timing of this is to accommodate the school’s capital project schedule, not because there is an emergency situation to be addressed,” said Tim Schneider, a project manager with the DEC.

The DEC's Tim Schneider talks at a community meeting in Elmira Wednesday night, May 2, 2018, about a plan to remove soil contaminated with hazardous waste from Elmira High School
(Photo: Staff Photo/Tom Wilber)

PCBs and TCE are common 20th century pollutants. Exposure to either can cause a range of ailments from nerve damage to cancer.

Officials said there is no risk of exposure, however, because the pollution is below ground – a claim critics have disputed.

The meeting quickly got heated during the question and answer period, as residents and former students stood up and asked why a pollution problem dating to the 1970s was still an issue today. Comments and questions challenging officials on the seriousness of the problem and the speed of the cleanup frequently drew applause.

“Why, after all these years are we still having a discussion about cleanup?” asked Kris Manns, who said she has known many former students who became ill.

“You are working very slowly,” said Eddie Baker, a resident of Main Street. “If it was your children, you would agree that it is slow.”

“I don’t understand why these kids were put at risk for 40 years,” Said Deborah Lynch, a Horseheads resident.

In an interview before the meeting, officials said they are still determining the exact boundaries of the pollution, although they are confident exposure risks are negligible.

“There is additional investigative work to be done,” said Mike Gruden, a DEC official overseeing the work. “We are not expecting any surprises in the way of additional exposure pathways,” he added.

Walter Hang, an environmental database specialist from Ithaca, cited data that shows PCB contamination above accepted guidelines in “surface soils” and other hazards in “shallows” below two inches.

“A couple of inches of dirt covered with grass obviously cannot assure that the public will not come into contact with it,” said Hang, head of Toxics Targeting, a firm specializing in environmental reports for real estate interests and other concerns.

DEC spokesman Sean Mahar characterized Hang’s assessment as a “misleading fear mongering campaign … taken out of context of all the analytical data we have … There are no students or faculty or anybody coming in contact with it.”

The pollution has raised concerns of health problems at the school off and on for generations. A 2003 review by state and federal health agencies prompted by concerns over cancer rates of students and alumni found “no apparent public health hazard” at the school because people are not likely to come in contact with the buried chemical hazards.

Statistics showed no unusual patterns of cancers among students and recent graduates at the time, with the exception of an unexplained spike in testicular cancer among students and recent graduates from 1997 to 2000.

“This simply cannot be considered as the proper course of action any longer,” said Andy Patros, a former Chemung County legislator and long-time resident. Patros’ son, Tom, was one of the testicular cancer cases in the health study.

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. Today, indoor air tests are performed regularly to ensure the system is working.

People began raising questions about the pace and thoroughness of the cleanup following a report in about the history of pollution at the Elmira School and other sites in the Southern Tier.

The pollution dates to industrial operations prior to the 1970s at the school, built on the former site of Remington Rand, at one time the world’s largest typewriter manufacturer.

More information on the site is available at:
the Elmira School District’s web site. Additional information is on the DEC’s web site.