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Former legislator wants local coalition to address health concerns at Elmira High School


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

The former Chemung County official who organized an April 12 informational meeting about lingering health concerns at Elmira High School wishes he knew in 2000 what he knows now.

Former county legislator Andy Patros said there was a great deal of focus on contamination at the high school property at that time, the legacy of a century of heavy industrial use.

What was not available to the public at the time, according to Patros, was a 1988 report prepared by an environmental consulting firm that provided detailed information about activity at the site before it became Southside High School, and the types of contaminants present.

Environmental data analyst Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting Inc., said he got a copy of the report last week after filing a Freedom of Information request with the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Patros told reporters the DEC never made that report available to the public before now, and he called for the formation of a local coalition to once again put a strong focus on contamination issues at the school.

"I had never seen this information before now. It was never presented during the previous inquiry period that involved students, including my son, with cancer at Southside High School from 2000 to 2003," Patros said.

"The New York State Department of Health closed that health consultation in the fall of 2003," he said. "In my opinion, if this information was made available to the public during that period of inquiry, we would have moved more swiftly and with greater progress in order to achieve a full, comprehensive cleanup of the school property."

Patros said his interest was renewed by a March Star-Gazette report that included Elmira High School among more than 30 sites in Chemung, Broome and Tompkins counties that represent public health or environmental threats.

The Elmira City School District obtained the property off South Main Street in 1977. Prior to that, the site was home to several industries, including Remington Rand, over the course of nearly a century.

The 1988 report was commissioned on behalf of Remington Rand successor Unisys, which is responsible for paying for cleanup of the school property.

In response to Hang's announcement last week regarding the findings of the 1988 report, DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said the details of the study were among the factors that drove every decision the agency has made about the cleanup at the site.

Seggo also stressed that the DEC has been committed to complete transparency and has held many public meetings over the years.

In a statement issued Monday afternoon, DEC stood by the assertions made by Seggos last week and emphasized the agency has conducted a thorough investigation with the safety of everyone involved as the top priority.

“To be clear, Elmira High School students, faculty, staff and visitors are at no risk of exposure to contamination at the school property, and New York State remains committed to overseeing a thorough cleanup of the Elmira High School property," the statement said.

"Over the past 30 years, DEC and our partners at the New York State Department of Health have conducted several thorough investigations related to the historic industrial use of the site to determine the nature and extent of contamination," the statement said. "All data collected has been integrated to inform our ongoing investigations, and guide comprehensive cleanup actions at this site."

DEC has maintained close oversight of all remedial activity at the site and has implemented all necessary measures meet New York State’s stringent standards that protect public health and the environment, according to the statement.

All historic soil and groundwater contamination detected on the site is below ground surface and any potential exposure pathways have been appropriately addressed, the agency said.

If that's the case, Patros wants to know why it took until 2013 before Unisys started any cleanup of the site.

He admitted the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks interrupted the investigation, but added it should have been renewed much sooner.

"If they’ve put so much work in, where are the results and progress to show for such a long period of commitment?" he asked. "How long do we as a community have to wait for full remediation, when the DEC still does not have overall plan in place?"

Patros is urging residents and public officials to sign an online petition asking Gov. Andrew Cuomo to declare the high school and adjacent properties as Class 1 hazardous waste sites to be remediated immediately.

More than 700 people have signed the petition so far, Patros said.

Patros will hold a public meeting May 21 to discuss formation of a local coalition that will keep this issue in the spotlight and put pressure on the state to act quickly on remaining contamination problems.

"Shame on the New York State Department of Health and the New York State DEC for keeping the public in the dark regarding this critically important report," Patros said.

"The history of the property as outlined in the report clearly exhibits many years of manufacturing activity with toxic materials and contaminants utilized in all phases of production and operation, whether it was fuses for bombs, typewriters or adding machines," he said. "Clean up all of the contamination at the Elmira High School, and begin to assess the surrounding neighborhoods now."