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Analyst claims DEC sat on report of industrial pollution at Elmira school site for 25 years


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Environmental data analyst Walter Hang discusses a 1988 report about industrial pollution at Elmira High School that he claims was never made public.
(Photo: Jeff Murray / Staff photo)

An environmental data analyst who has been digging into the industrial history of the Elmira High School property said state officials had a copy of an alarming report on the site in 1988, and did nothing.

But the state Department of Environmental Conservation said that is absolutely false, and that the document in question has been incorporated into DEC's response since Day 1.

The site of the school is among more than 30 sites in Chemung, Broome and Tompkins counties that represent public health or environmental threats, according to the Star-Gazette's review of the state’s database of Superfund and brownfield sites.

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

Hang said he was prompted to do more research on the high school property on South Main Street after numerous former students and faculty members contacted him with horror stories about an array of serious health issues.

The Elmira City School District obtained the 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.

Hang released his latest findings Thursday. He said he uncovered a report created in 1988 by Dames and Moore of Liverpool, a leading environmental consulting firm at the time.

The report was prepared for Unisys, the successor to Remington Rand, and contained very detailed and disturbing information that Hang claims DEC knew about but didn't act on for decades.

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

"The study was based on a review of readily available information. There is an aerial photo from circa 1938 that shows disturbed areas that may have been used for disposal of wastes," Hang said. "It included a compilation of industrial wastes — solvents, oils, sludge. This information was available and DEC did nothing for 25 years. These were classic industrial processes that generated highly toxic waste."

The report also detailed wastewater discharges that were contaminating properties beyond the school property. Those concerns have never been fully addressed, Hang said.

DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said DEC has taken significant action at the high school property over the last several years and that nothing has been held back from the public.

Seggos also wanted to reassure residents there is no imminent threat.

"There are no exposure pathways right now for any contamination on-site, period. I want to make that very clear," Seggos said. "We as regulators would never allow that to happen. That's been our priority since the 1980s. To suggest a report came out and we’ve done nothing is patently false.

"No. 2, we have been committed to complete transparency on this," he said. "Over the last 30 years, we’ve had many public meetings and we're committed to more meetings in the coming weeks on this. We're working closely with the school board on this. If people have questions or concerns, the should feel free to come to us."

This map provided by Walter Hang shows the location of possible industrial contamination at Elmira High School.
(Photo: Jeff Murray / Staff photo)

Hang said he has amassed more than 500 signatures on an online petition on his website and will ultimately forward it to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, asking that the high school and neighboring properties be designated as Class 1 hazardous waste sites and be remediated immediately.

"This is a huge wake-up call not only for Elmira but for New York state as a whole that the toxic cleanup program is not living up to what the law requires," Hang said. "Many of these chemicals are cancer causing. All the pollution has to be removed. It isn't just coincidence or happenstance that people are getting sick. The brownfield program is moving at a glacial pace."

A recent public information meeting hosted by DEC at the Elmira Holiday Inn Riverview was well attended.

Unisys entered into a consent agreement with DEC in 2014 to clean up the property. DEC and the state Health Department have closely monitored the cleanup efforts since that time, Seggos said.

Seggos bristled at the suggestion that DEC ignored the high school contamination problem, noting that many of the people on his staff have worked on this issue their entire careers.

"Today’s event was totally irresponsible. We were on the phone with Hang (Wednesday) asking what information can we provide, what questions do you have?" he said. "He did not say one thing about the 1988 report. He cherry picked one document from the 1980s and made the public believe there has been nothing done since then. That is patently false and I will not stand for it."