You are here

Revisiting NY's toxic legacy: Our coverage sparks accelerated cleanup, calls for health study


Elmira High School was built on a site once used for heavy industry. Areas of the school property have shown concerning levels of hazardous contamination. Parts of the property have already undergone remediation.
(Photo: Kate Collins)

A Star-Gazette investigation last March of the history of PCB pollution under Elmira High School sparked a renaissance of community engagement pushing for faster cleanup and a renewed look at health problems among students and staff.

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

Following up on the report's findings in April, Walter Hang, an environmental database specialist from Ithaca, called the extent of pollution at the school “shocking.” Hang, head of Toxics Targeting, rallied community involvement while publicly urging state officials to reclassify the site as “an imminent danger that can cause irreparable damage to the public or environment."

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

In weeks that followed, the Chemung County Legislature, Elmira City Council, the Town of Southport and the Town of Elmira passed resolutions urging the state to accelerate the cleanup. The school discontinued activities on the school’s football field contaminated by PCBs.

State environmental and health officials say the pollution poses "no apparent" health risk because it is buried. In the wake of public concern, however, they are accelerating the cleanup schedule. Additionally, state Department of Health officials said they will meet with school officials early next year to consider feasibility of a study of illnesses among staff and students.

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

Now, as it's apparent the impacts of past pollution are wreaking havoc on our communities, from Elmira to other points across the state, we are taking another look at the toxic legacy in New York and finding out what's next.

Here is what you'll find in our new report on NY's toxic legacy

  • RISK REMAINS: Elmira High School property and playing fields remain contaminated by high concentrations of PCBs and industrial solvents dumped by industry more than 40 years ago.
  • PLAY HALTED: Activities were suspended on the school’s playing field earlier this year after an article in the Elmira Star-Gazette brought renewed awareness of the problem.
  • FASTER CLEANUP? State officials, responding to public pressure in a series of meetings after the article ran, said they will expedite the cleanup.
  • THE CHILLING EFFECTS: A 2003 evaluation found elevated rates of testicular cancer among students and recent graduates, though health officials said the pollution did not pose a significant health threat.
  • WHAT'S NEXT: The state Department of Health officials will hold a meeting early next year to respond to concern over chronic illnesses reported by various staff and former students.
  • THERE'S MORE: The school is one of more nearly 1,300 active toxic legacy sites spread across the state. Hundreds more are suspect.