You are here

Legacy of Poison in Twice-Excavated Yards


Tom Harrington's backyard in Queensbury, N.Y., looks much as it used to, except for a few telltale signs: the maple tree is smaller, the swing set is in a different place, and the lawn has strange lines running through it, like a bad hair implant.

Last fall, most of Mr. Harrington's yard was dug out and replaced by the State Department of Environmental Conservation, at depths up to 20 feet, because it was contaminated with PCB's. So were the yards of several of his neighbors in Queensbury, a blue-collar suburb of Glens Falls in Warren County. Decades ago, many local people, trying to make a little extra money, took apart PCB-laden electric capacitors to remove the copper inside and sell it. They let the chemicals drip into the soil, leaving future generations a toxic legacy.

Yesterday, two neighborhood residents filed the first of what their lawyer said would be more than 100 personal injury and property damage lawsuits against General Electric, which manufactured the capacitors until 1977 at its nearby plants in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls in Washington County. Many of the residents say they have skin eruptions and other health problems associated with PCB's. Several appeared yesterday at a news conference in Albany with Walter Hang, the director of an environmental group, Toxics Targeting, that has released a report on PCB contamination in the area.

Mark Behan, a spokesman for G.E., said that he was not aware of the lawsuit but that it appeared to be misdirected, because ''the company did not dispose of PCB's or capacitors on these people's property.''

The residents' lawyer, Marc J. Bern, said, ''G.E. is responsible as the polluter, because they hid the dangers of the PCB's.''

Philip Weinberg, a law professor at St. John's University in Queens, said legal precedents for the case were not clear. ''It would depend, among other things, on how much G.E. knew or should have known about the dangers of PCB's at the time, and what they knew about how they were being disposed of,'' he said.

What makes Mr. Harrington and his neighbors' plight particularly unusual is that the state dug out and replaced the soil in their yards once before, in 1979, after finding high levels of contamination.

''They're saying there ain't nothing there, but they said that after the first time,'' said Clark Condon, 57, recalling how the bulldozers cut a canyon around his house 22 years ago. Like many of his neighbors, he now believes that there is more of the toxic chemical left in the area, which once had many small junkyards.

Jennifer Meicht, a spokeswoman for the conservation department, said, ''The state has made every effort to identify potential areas where there may be contamination, and we've tried to make sure all the contamination is removed.''

The State Health Department tested the blood of the people whose soil was removed, and all the results were within the normal range, said Claire Pospisil, a spokeswoman. (Because PCB's were used so commonly before they were banned in 1977, virtually everyone's blood has trace amounts, officials say.)

The state first tested soil in the area in 1979 after reports of PCB-laced oil being dumped years before while the capacitors were dismantled, Ms. Meicht said. Capacitors store electric energy, and PCB's, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were used as insulation.

The state found high levels of contamination in the soil and removed 13,000 cubic yards of it, Ms. Meicht said. It was replaced with clean material, and residents were told their homes were safe.

In 1999 the agency came back to do a routine check and found that the soil was still contaminated around seven homes, though the source was not clear, Ms. Meicht said. The levels varied from one part per million -- the state's minimum for a cleanup -- to 1,500 parts per million. Anything over 50 parts is classified as toxic waste. Again, the state's contractors dug out all the yards where they found the chemicals and filled them in with clean soil, Ms. Meicht said.

Michael Mabb, whose yard next to Mr. Condon's was also dug out, said he thought the excavation stopped only because it was taking too long and was running over the budget. ''It was coming winter and they just wanted to get out of here,'' he said.

Mr. Mabb's wife, Penny, has scars and boils on her arms and legs that are consistent with high-level exposure to PCB's, said David Carpenter, a professor in the School of Public Health at the State University at Albany.

Dr. Carpenter, who was at the news conference yesterday, said Mrs. Mabb and others could also have been exposed to dibenzofuran, a highly toxic chemical similar to dioxin that is produced when PCB's are burned. Several residents said they recalled that the capacitors were heated to remove the copper more easily.

All the talk of PCB contamination has hurt the value of their properties, several residents said, making it hard to move away. ''My place was appraised at $80,000, but now I couldn't give it away,'' said Liz Moffre, who grew up on one of the properties where the soil was removed twice and now lives a few houses down.

''I raised four girls in that house, and we've never been compensated for anything,'' said Rae Clarke, whose yard was also excavated twice, and who said she had not heard about the lawsuit. Like Mr. Condon and his family, she had to live at a nearby motel during the months the work was done.

Several people who have lived here for decades also say PCB's were dumped throughout the area, affecting many more than the 25 homes the state agency says it tested in 1999 and 2000.

''The whole area was nothing but junk,'' said George Mabb, a taxi driver who lives nearby and is Michael Mabb's cousin. He scrapped capacitors himself as a boy, he said, and poured out the oil in his backyard, like many of his friends. ''That's how some people made a living in those days,'' he said. ''It was real poor.''

Photos: Residents of Queensbury, N.Y., believe PCB's in their soil are hurting their health. Penny Mabb's scars, above, look like the effect of high-level exposure, a public health professor says. At right, neighbors chat with Tom Harrington, second from left, whose yard was excavated twice by the state. (Photographs by Will Waldron for The New York Times)