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Analyst: Data refutes DEC claim there is no risk of exposure to toxins at Elmira High School


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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.

An environmental data analyst who has been studying documents related to industrial contamination at Elmira High School said those records show the state is not being honest when it says there is no risk of exposure by students or others.

But the state agency responsible for overseeing cleanup of the property stands by its statement that the site does not pose an imminent public health threat.

Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting of Ithaca, has researched the history of Elmira High School, which sits on a longtime industrial site off South Main Street, since a Star-Gazette report published in March listed Southern Tier sites that represent environmental or public health threats.

Responding to earlier claims by Hang that the state Department of Environmental Conservation sat on a 1988 report that detailed extensive contamination at the site for 25 years, DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said "There are no exposure pathways right now for any contamination on-site, period."

But Hang said during a Friday news conference that public documents provided by DEC and the state Health Department through Freedom of Information requests show there are still levels of known cancer-causing agents in the air and on the grounds at the school.

Environmental data analyst Walter Hang shows pictures of exposed soil at Elmira High School that he said could lead to direct contact with industrial contaminants.
(Photo: Jeff Murray / Staff photo)

"We're refuting the government's assurances that there is no risk of exposure to contamination," Hang said.

"It's now come to light that Sperry Remington disclosed to the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 1982 that there were pollutants dumped at this site," he said. "After 35 years, the site still isn't cleaned up. To say there is no risk is simply not supported by available facts."

A study of the data shows there are still higher than normal levels of several toxic chemicals in the air inside the building and outside, Hang said.

Some of that contamination could be coming in through cracks in the foundation that have not been repaired, while some is coming in from outside through the ventilation system and open windows, he said.

In addition, Hang pointed out numerous areas around the athletic fields where grass has been worn away, leaving exposed dirt that could pose a risk of direct contact to dangerous chemicals to athletes and others.

DEC spokesman Sean Mahar said nobody is disputing that there has been contamination on the site, and that's why the agency has done extensive studies and worked with numerous partners to make sure it's properly remediated.

"That’s been our goal and remains our goal, first and foremost to ensure it’s done to protect the public and the environment. Our priority is to make sure the cleanup is done in the right way," Mahar said. "To do that we need the right data to drive that conversation. We gathered that data. We will continue to undertake cleanup efforts. That will be underway in the coming weeks."

DEC is aware of concerns over cracks in the foundation and even though they don't appear to extend all the way through, they will be addressed out of an abundance of caution, Mahar said.

DEC is also working closely with the state Health Department to monitor the air quality at the school, he said.

The property was the site of heavy industrial use for nearly a century before the Elmira City School District bought it for $1 in 1977 to build a new high school.

Unisys, the company that succeeded Remington Rand, one of the major industrial users at the site, is responsible for cleanup under a consent order with DEC.

All of the reports Hang reviewed are available for public review on his website, along with excerpts, he said.

About 800 people have signed an online petition asking Gov. Andrew Cuomo to immediately declare the high school and surrounding neighborhoods a Class 1 hazardous waste site so that thorough cleanup can begin as soon as possible, Hang said.

There have been several remediation projects at the site but they have been done in a piecemeal manner, he said.

If Hang is concerned with the way the remediation is being carried out, he should raise those issues directly with DEC, Mahar said.

"If Walter is truly interested, it would be great if he would come to us so we could have a conversation about how we are interpreting (date). It’s unfortunate he isn’t doing that but is just calling news conferences," Mahar said. "Our priority is to get this cleanup done and we’re doing it in the right way and we invite anyone who wants to partner with us to come on board."

Hang noted the levels of contaminants in the school aren't high enough to create an imminent health threat, but said repeated exposure over a long period of time could definitely lead to long term problems.

"It's not like you will come in contact and immediately become sick, but you might be exposed over years, and the risk goes up and up," Hang said. "The facts speak for themselves. There's no question people are being exposed at the school and around the school. The public has a right to ask — how come this is happening?"