You are here

Emerson may test 32 homes


Ithaca resident David Watkins asks state health and environmental conservation officials whether they live in the area affected by chemical pollution from the Emerson Power Transmission Plant during the meeting Thursday afternoon at the Tompkins County Public Library. Approximately 40 residents attended the meeting.IRINA PERESS/Journal Staff

ITHACA -- Thirty-two homes have been pinpointed as likely candidates for indoor air and soil gas testing in neighborhoods affected by pollution around Emerson Power Transmission's plant.

"We want to do this as quickly as possible," Emerson Environmental Affairs Director Derek Chase said of the residential testing.

That news was among many issues discussed at two public information sessions Wednesday aimed at helping residents understand pollution issues in their neighborhood, and how Emerson and state agencies are dealing with the contamination. It appears the indoor testing could start as early as September.

The designated properties are primarily around West Spencer Street, South Cayuga Street and South Hill Terrace, with maps showing the targeted area extending to parts of Hillview Place and South Titus Avenue. They were named by Emerson as part of a proposal submitted to state officials this week.

Non-residential soil vapor, or "vadose zone," testing downhill from the Emerson plant in June detected evidence of trichloroethylene (TCE) and related chemicals cis-1,2-dichloroethene, tetrachloroethene and 1,1,1-trichloroethane in sampling at nine sites on June 17.
TCE, an organic solvent, was used at the plant under former owners until 1983.

The presence of "elevated levels of several chemical compounds" in soil gas "warrant (s) further investigation both near and inside residences," according to a state Department of Environmental Conservation bulletin.

Chase said the target area for home testing was chosen based on analysis of results from the June soil vapor tests, particularly in the case of results from wells on South Cayuga Street and South Hill Terrace.

The DEC and state Health Department must approve Emerson's proposal before it can move forward. DEC Region 7 Engineer Mary Jane Peachey said that review process could take one to two weeks.

Individual homeowners' approval is required for household testing to proceed. Chase said some residents have already said yes, and more signups may have resulted from Wednesday's meetings. Once the state approves Emerson's plans, Chase said the company will send mailings to designated households to seek permission from those who have not already granted it.

Homeowners may refuse the request, though more people seem to be clamoring for testing than resisting it. Several residents living outside the initial testing area said they hope Emerson and the state will include them in the process. Turner Place resident Earl Andrews was among them. Officials told him his street might be included in a second round of testing.

"If we see a reason to sample, we will sample your home," Peachey told people from outlying areas. "We can't just do everyone because they want us to." She explained that the criterion is that the homes have some evidence of having been impacted by the pollution.

For the first set of homes, plans are for separate sets of warm weather testing and cold weather testing, the latter slated for this winter.
The different types are needed due to differences in air flow patterns given temperature changes and ventilation in homes from season to season. "If the data tell us unacceptable levels are in the homes, they need to get mitigated," DEC's Peachey said. "Right now we're looking at Emerson to do that. If they don't, we will."

Chase stressed Emerson's determination to stay the course.

"We accept our responsibility," he said. "We're committed to our responsibility."

According to a state Health Department report, mitigation can take a number of forms. Those may include sealing cracks in the building's foundation, or adjusting the the heating and cooling systems so pressure keeps subsurface vapors out. Another option is installing a "sub-slab depressurization system." Similar to radon remediation systems, those use low level suction below the foundation to prevent vapors entering from below.

"We're going to let the data guide us," Peachey said of pegging future testing areas. "We're going to get the science and proceed from there.

"We will go out and continue the sampling until we find nothing," she added.

If the sampling plans were laid out fairly clearly, many residents were less than pleased with the responses they received to other questions, including the potential health hazards of TCE and related substances.

"Most of the information we have on health consequences of exposure to these (substances) are occupational exposures, and they're very common," said Henriette Hamel, a Syracuse-based regional toxins coordinator for the state Health Department. "We don't know what long long exposures ... to very very slight quantities cause," she said.

"What we're trying to tell you," Hamel added, "is that at the levels we're probably finding in indoor air here, you would probably not see demonstrable health effects."

According to the Centers for Disease Control, breathing small amounts may cause headaches, lung irritation, dizziness, poor coordination, and difficulty concentrating. Breathing large amounts of trichloroethylene may cause impaired heart function, unconsciousness, and death. Breathing it for long periods may cause nerve, kidney, and liver damage.

Erika Williams has lived on Hillview Terrace her whole life. She recalled a childhood dog used to go swimming in areas around the factory and often came home soaked in oily and greasy residue. The dog later died of cancer.

Andrews, of Turner Place, said he suffers from a viral heart ailment which doctors never satisfactorily diagnosed.

Hamel told residents that information collected during the testing could lead to more in-depth health risk analysis.

PDF icon PDF-version article151.79 KB