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Toxic time bomb: Elmira High School pollution an urgent problem among NY's cleanups


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The Thomas J. Hurley Athletic Complex at Elmira High School. Testing revealed that the athletic field has high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which are known carcinogens.
(Photo: Kate Collins / Staff photo)

There are more than 1,300 active toxic legacy sites spread across the state and hundreds more that are suspect. One of them is right under students and staff at Elmira High School.

While digging up polluted and toxic soil at Elmira High School last summer, excavators hit a jarring surprise three feet below the parking lot — immovable concrete walls extending to unknown depths.

Environmental engineers overseeing the job knew the school was built on land polluted by the former Remington Rand factory, but they didn’t expect to encounter physical remains of the offending structure.

“They were massive,” said Heidi Dudek, a project manager with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. “Industrial relics — that’s the best way to describe them.”

For nearly 50 years, the toxic legacy of the school’s predecessor was out of sight and mostly out of mind. Now, the newly exposed foundation was complicating efforts to remove some 6,800 tons of soil laced with PCBs dumped, spilled or leaked from operations they once supported.

The find was unexpected, but not unique.

Pollution's forgotten legacy

Across New York state, nearly 1,300 active toxic legacy sites and hundreds of suspected sites sit beneath the surface like the one at Elmira High School, according to an Elmira Star-Gazette analysis of state DEC records.

The pollution comes from former operations of the biggest names in 20th-century American manufacturing — IBM, Kodak, General Electric, Westinghouse, Xerox — as well as neighborhood machine shops and dry cleaners.

A legacy of pollution might seem a simple footnote in New York's environmental history, but like the forgotten hazards at Elmira High School, the dangers linger. While our memories might be short or our attention may have wandered, long-buried pollutants still exist.

Pollution's forgotten legacy

Across New York state, nearly 1,300 active toxic legacy sites and hundreds of suspected sites sit beneath the surface like the one at Elmira High School, according to an Elmira Star-Gazette analysis of state DEC records.

The pollution comes from former operations of the biggest names in 20th-century American manufacturing — IBM, Kodak, General Electric, Westinghouse, Xerox — as well as neighborhood machine shops and dry cleaners.

A legacy of pollution might seem a simple footnote in New York's environmental history, but like the forgotten hazards at Elmira High School, the dangers linger. While our memories might be short or our attention may have wandered, long-buried pollutants still exist.

Crews cleaning PCBs from under the Elmira High School parking lot last summer unexpectedly ran into the foundation of the old Remington Rand factory.
(Photo: Provided photo)

PCBs and industrial solvents such as TCE are among the most insidious and pervasive of these hazards. They can cause illnesses ranging from cancer to nerve damage. Colorless and odorless, they are essentially invisible to people working at or near polluted sites, where they can remain in the ground for generations, and flow with air and water to new areas.

The old factory foundation under the parking lot is one of many revelations recently uncovered at the Elmira school as Unisys, Remington Rand’s successor, makes incremental progress cleaning a monumental problem.

Unearthed by Star-Gazette investigation

Last March, an investigation in the Star-Gazette reported that after almost 50 years, the extent of the pollution still is unknown, the cleanup is far from complete, and more problems lurk below the surface.

That Star-Gazette investigation sparked a renaissance of community involvement that, many believe, is the last, best hope for fixing the problem.

“It raised awareness to get people re-engaged and re-oriented with the issue,” said Andy Patros, a lifelong resident and former Chemung County legislator. “It was a wake-up call.”

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

More than 200 residents and parents attended a public meeting in April to urge environmental and health officials to make the school cleanup a high priority.

Soon after, with anger and disillusion running high, the Chemung County Legislature, Elmira City Council, Town of Southport and Town of Elmira passed resolutions urging the state to accelerate the cleanup.

“We heard from the community and the school loud and clear,” DEC Chief of Staff Sean Mahar said in a recent interview. “They want this cleaned up. We are stepping up.”

Last summer, technicians collected 1,360 samples on the football field and found PCB levels increasing in concentration from an inch or two below the surface up to 14 feet deep. Some hot spots exceeded cleanup standards by a factor of 1,000 or more.

School activities were discontinued on the high school field, which had been used for modified and junior varsity sports, and physical education classes for almost 40 years. The cleanup under the field, in limbo for years while administrators tried to time the work to capital improvements, is now scheduled for next summer.

Inside the school building, engineers sealed cracks in the school floor as a safeguard against TCE vapors under the school’s foundation.

Cleanup scope, schedule still uncertain

Despite these recent actions, officials still don’t know the full scope of the pollution, nor do they have a schedule for a comprehensive cleanup.

State records show PCBs have traveled from the old manufacturing operations along a 2.6-mile stretch of Coldbrook Creek, contaminating at least 18 residential properties downstream. More testing is scheduled for the summer.

Parents and students, meanwhile, say they feel betrayed by state agencies that have for years assured them there was little to worry about, said Rodney Strange, a Chemung County legislator and former school board president.

“People are let down. People are angry," he said. “It’s not just about the state. It’s local officials. We let our guard down.”

While state agencies still claim there is no apparent risk of exposure to the buried chemicals, the community now is very much on guard. Patros has organized a citizens steering committee to gather information and press state agencies for answers. They are especially interested in an assessment of illnesses the group believes are related to chemical exposure among not only students but staff — from teachers to groundskeepers.

State officials have scheduled a meeting with the committee early in 2019 to discuss “what the DOH is capable of doing and not capable of doing” about questions concerning illnesses, said Justin Deming, a New York Department of Health administrator.

U.S. Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, said in an email Tuesday his office "will continue to monitor the situation" and "stand at the ready if any assistance is needed” from federal health agencies.

Physician: 'Blown away by' DOH resistance

Devin Coppola, a 1984 Elmira graduate and member of the steering committee, said the matter should be a no-brainer. He was diagnosed in 2000 with hyperthyroidism and in 2004 with testicular cancer — diseases associated with TCE exposure.

Volumes of technical data detailing pollution at Elmira High School are on file at the local library.
(Photo: Tom Wilber/Staff photo)

Coppola, now a physician in Tully, south of Syracuse, believes exposure risks remain at the school. However, exposure was especially bad when Coppola attended, long before officials began taking incremental steps to vent toxic fumes from under the school’s foundation and cover PCB-laden soils with mulch.

“I’m blown away by the resistance we’re getting from the DOH in looking into this,” Coppola said. “We shouldn’t have to push that hard. … They are supposed to be on the side of the people, but they clearly are not.”

Coppola joined a recent meeting at Patros’ house via Skype. The group focused on questions about exposures, and what they saw as a general unwillingness of state officials to engage in an aggressive search for answers.

Some Elmira-area residents today have deeply personal stories growing from their apparent exposure to Elmira High School's toxic pollutants.

Patros’ son, Tom, was part of a cluster of students or recent graduates diagnosed with testicular cancer several years before Coppola received his diagnosis. Tom Patros survived the illness, and until contacted by a reporter earlier this year, his father thought the pollution problems at the school were resolved.

Mike Dooley, a retired health care administrator, recounted the struggles of his two daughters who graduated from the school. One, Briana Taggart, has lymphoma, a blood cancer sometimes associated with TCE exposure, and another, Erin Cormier, has multiple sclerosis — a degenerative disease of the central nervous system. The diseases do not run in their family.

Debb VanDelinder, a recently retired art teacher who worked at the high school for more than 25 years, was diagnosed with polycythemia vera, a rare blood cancer, earlier this year.

The Thomas J. Hurley Athletic Complex at Elmira High School. Testing revealed that the athletic field has high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which are known carcinogens.
(Photo: Kate Collins / Staff photo)

Could cancers have been prevented?

Committee members wonder whether these and other illnesses could have been preventable. Only in-depth health studies could tie the pollution to the diseases, and such studies often never can make an absolute connection.

School administrators took little action to address TCE pollution until 2007, when they installed two systems to vent fumes from under the foundation. Unisys added a third system in 2014 after tests found traces of the hazard in a classroom. They now monitor the air to make sure systems are working.

“I no longer believe these reassurances,” said VanDelinder, the retired teacher. “History has taught me that those reassurances hold truth only until it unravels as the next batch of bad soil or soil gas vapor is located and identified.”

Shortly before she retired in June, VanDelinder showed DEC officials multiple cracks in the school floor — potential paths for vapors from the contaminated ground. Unisys contractors filled the cracks last summer.

Bill Wertz, an environmental consultant, shows where technicians filled cracks in the floor last summer as a safeguard against toxic vapors below the Elmira school.
(Photo: Tom Wilber / Staff Photo)

Capital improvement vs. cleanup

Prior to the community uprising this year, the pace of the cleanup was tied to the school’s long-term capital improvement schedule rather than any pressing concern about exposure risks.

Even with stepped-up efforts, however, a final solution is likely years off.

Unisys — working under a consent order negotiated with the state in 2014 — removed more than 13,000 tons of polluted soil from under school parking lots and tennis courts in the summers of 2017 and 2018 as part of a previously scheduled capital upgrade.

Records about the waste buried at the school are incomplete or nonexistent, so engineers use soil samples and fieldwork to fill in the gaps. Surprises are not unusual.

The unexpected encounter with the foundation last summer thwarted a plan to drive steel sheets into the ground to wall off the digging area and prevent soil from collapsing into the hole.

Instead, crews had to peel back a greater area of ground, and take other safeguards to isolate and remove the polluted soil. They were successful after a flurry of revised plans and amended permits with the state.

“We were, in a way, archaeologists,” said Kevin Krueger, director of global environmental safety for Unisys. “There were things that we found out that nobody had records on. As we uncovered this, we had to adjust.”

Based on the extent of the work in front of them, more adjustments may be necessary.

'No apparent health hazard’

Concerns over toxic exposure at the Elmira school have ebbed and flowed since 1977 when, in a deal brokered through the Southern Tier Economic Growth agency, the school district acquired the polluted property for $1.

Months later, 34 acres on the north side of the sprawling manufacturing site were bulldozed to clear way for the new school and playing fields. But even as cranes erected girders to frame the new Southern Tier school building, a harsh lesson about dangers of building over industrial waste was gaining national attention 135 miles to the north in Niagara Falls.

On Aug. 7, 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared a state of emergency due to toxic materials found under the Love Canal neighborhood. The following year, as the brand new Elmira school opened its doors to enthusiastic students, evacuations began at Love Canal after state and federal officials found manufacturing waste was making residents sick.

Unlike Love Canal — which became the poster child of 20th century environmental negligence — years passed with no immediate signs of a looming crisis at Elmira. No rusting drums of toxic chemicals were found rising from the ground; kids playing on the field did not report burns and open sores from exposure.

Yet there were disturbing similarities:

  • The failure of the planners of the day to put health before economics.
  • The lack of records showing what was dumped or spilled.
  • The chronic resurfacing of problems and questions about the site’s history.

For years after the Elmira school was built, parents worried over cancers and other illnesses reported among students, and wondered about exposure to whatever had been bulldozed and buried with the factory’s remains.

And they learned to live with it.

Plans for new lights and artificial turf at the school — then called Southside High School — were abandoned in the mid-'90s because they required digging. And digging would mean disturbing whatever chemical hazards were buried in the dirt.

Instead, the turf and lights were added to Elmira Free Academy — now Ernie Davis Academy, a middle school — several miles away, and varsity soccer and football competitions were held there. The high school field, with no lights or turf, was used for modified and junior varsity teams, and physical education classes.

Not until 1992, 13 years after the school was built, did state DEC officials begin testing a small industrial area adjacent to the south end of the school. They found high levels of PCBs and other contamination.

Elmira High School's predecessor, Remington Rand, in its heyday.
(Photo: Provided photo)

More testing in 1995 traced petroleum-related contamination near Miller Pond back to the school property. Four more years would pass before the investigation expanded. Samples found another class of hazardous compounds — chlorinated organics — also under school property.

These results drew little substantive action until 2000, as community concern over sick students grew. In response, officials from the state health department and the federal Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry conducted a limited health evaluation. Results showed an unexplained spike in testicular cancer among students and recent graduates from 1997 to 2000.

However, the agency found “no apparent public health hazard” at the school because people were unlikely to come in contact with the buried chemicals. The testicular cancers were dismissed as an anomaly.

Birth defects, low birth weights and reproductive problems — one of the greatest risks of exposure to the types of chemicals found under the school — were not evaluated among graduates and staff.

The health assessment more or less put the matter to rest for many stakeholders at the time.

“We were told there is no concern. It’s all below ground and safe,” said Strange, who served on the school board in the 1990s. “We believed what we were told.”

'It seemed to be resolved'

Life went on. Students graduated. Teachers retired. Other teachers and students arrived. The fact that the school sat on a hazardous waste site, for those old enough to remember, became more or less accepted.

“Their general message is, as long as we watch the use of the property, we’re okay,” Patros said.

Jen Clark, a biology teacher, began teaching at the high school in 2014 after spending much of her young career in other school buildings in the district.

“I was kind of aware of it,” she said. “But it seemed to be resolved. We were told there was nothing to worry about. You make the assumption that if you’re not hearing about it, things must be okay.”

Clark and others were unaware that, in 2009, tests under Room 127 found TCE levels as high as 2,100 micrograms per cubic meter in the ground, and up to 2.4 inside. While the inside values were comparatively low, they showed the chemical — highly concentrated under the slab — was finding a way in.

Although the Department of Health determines remediation plans on a case-by-case analysis of the threats, some studies suggest no levels of TCE are safe, especially for childbearing women.

More recent tests for PCBs under the football field have found “substantial areas above 50 parts per million up to 33,930 ppm,” with “delineation of known areas of PCB contamination incomplete.” The cleanup threshold for PCBs is soil is 10 ppm or less.

With each new discovery, school officials and Unisys have upgraded safety measures. Taking their cues from the state Department of Health, they added mulch and dirt to provide a buffer for certain PCB-contaminated areas, dug out and replaced a corner of the football field, and installed systems to vent toxic vapors from under the school.

First steps to actually remove substantial volumes of pollution, however, were not taken until the excavations began in summer 2017.

“They keep on saying there are no issues, but they keep on putting in new systems,” Vandelinder said.

‘Follow where contamination leads’

Today, officials stand by previous assessments that the pollution poses no apparent health risk.

“If we had data that showed the school needed to be closed, we would do that,” the DEC’s Mahar said. “Our response is grounded in science, grounded in engineering, and grounded in the laws of the state. If we see cause for immediate action, we act. Always.”

That was the overriding message at public information sessions hosted at the school by the DEC and DOH in June and October. The intention was to allow the public to directly question contractors, engineers and health officials who stood at various booths and displays.

“What we learned is PCB contamination is mainly south of the 50-yard line,” DEC engineer Tim Schneider reported at the October session. He referenced a “measles chart” dotted with small red and yellow circles indicating where samples showed elevated PCBs, beginning at two inches below the surface. Hundreds of dots were clustered in the south end of the field, nearest the school building.

Red, blue and purple dots show areas of high PCB concentration under the Elmira High School playing field.
(Photo: Tom Wilber / Staff Photo)

Engineers typically start testing in known or suspected hot spots and work out from there, Schneider explained. “We follow where contamination leads us,” he added.

The next phase of sampling will include a former rail stop where hazardous material was once transferred and possibly spilled or dumped near the school’s eastern boundary.

“A lot of the dirty operations were in the back,” Schneider said. “It will be interesting to see what we find out here.”

Testing indicates PCBs have contaminated nearby Coldbrook Creek, where they are being carried to properties downstream.

Some residences bordering the creek have received form letters from environmental contractors advising “precautions to limit exposure” where the creek is prone to flooding. The advice includes keeping livestock and pets from the area, avoiding digging, and washing hands and tools that have come into contact with polluted ground.

Officials “are evaluating the data to determine the next steps,” the letter states.

Strange, the county legislator, lives next to a resident who received this warning. Although Strange’s own property is also in the path of PCB contamination, he has received no notification.

Deming, of the DOH, said letters were sent to 18 property owners who granted technicians access for testing. Creekside residents, such as Strange, who did not receive notification may be included in future testing, Deming said.

Strange’s father used to tend a garden in the flood area, Strange said. The family ate vegetables and gave them to neighbors. Strange wonders whether past PCB exposure contributed to multiple cancers in his family, including the brain cancer his brother has endured.

He is now second-guessing a recent purchase of a $4,000 dog fence that likely encompasses the polluted area. But he isn’t sure exactly where that is.

When asked about this, Deming said the state did not find PCB levels “that required immediate action” along the creek. But, he added, “we wanted to let people know they should be mindful of them.”

Looking back, longtime residents say this is another example of pollution being swept under the rug or glossed over.

'We were naive'

“I’m confident there was exposure,” said Jim Hare, a former Elmira mayor, city councilman and, when the building was new, school teacher. “We were naive. We were prepared to accept whatever the DEC told us.”

Local officials who voted for the resolution to push the state’s timetable on the cleanup said it’s time to get the issue resolved once and for all. But some are skeptical, given mixed messages of the past.

“The state responds to public pressure,” Hare said. “But public pressure can only be sustained for so long. I’m afraid (state officials) are getting ready to walk away.”

Strange is encouraged by the DEC’s response to the recent groundswell of public involvement, he said. But he, too, wonders how far that will go.

“We can’t look back,” he said. “There is nothing we can do about the past. We have to get this done now. Or it will never get done."