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Rennie Farm Group Retains Lawyer

  • Jim Wieck, left, a consultant with GZA Geo Environmental Inc, describes the company's pumping and purifying operations at Dartmouth College's Rennie Farm in Hanover Center, N.H., on Saturday, February 18, 2017. (Rob Strong photograph)

  • Equipment trailers involved with GZA Geo Environmental's pumping and purifying operations at Dartmouth College's Rennie Farm in Hanover Center, N.H., on Saturday, February 18, 2017. (Rob Strong photograph)

  • Equipment involved with GZA Geo Environmental's pumping and purifying operations at Dartmouth College's Rennie Farm in Hanover Center, N.H., on Saturday, February 18, 2017. (Rob Strong photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, March 12, 2017

Hanover — Neighbors of Rennie Farm, Dartmouth College’s former dumping ground for laboratory animals, are retaining a lawyer in hopes of persuading Dartmouth to expand and sweeten the terms of a program established last month to compensate homeowners for market losses.

A group of residents calling themselves the “North Hanover/Lyme Steering Committee” are concerned that Dartmouth may not be doing enough to control the spread of contamination and settle the real estate market near its 50-year-old medical waste site, according to a packet sent in February to more than 200 area property owners and obtained by the Valley News.

The residents say they are considering the possibility of a lawsuit if negotiations, which they have not yet broached to the college, don’t work out.

“The hope is that there is a way to quickly resolve this,” the neighbors’ attorney, William Walsh, said in an interview last week, “and we’re examining whether we’re going to work with a number of the individuals up in the community and help them.”

Walsh, an environmental pollution specialist at the New York City firm Weitz & Luxenberg, said he had been retained to investigate the Rennie Farm case and help determine the community’s next steps, whether those be negotiations with Dartmouth, a suit or something else.

The mid-20th century dump site at Rennie Farm in past years has been leaking a probable human carcinogen known as 1,4-dioxane into the surrounding countryside, a rural residential area near Hanover Center and the town line with Lyme.

To help stabilize a market roiled by fears of contamination, Dartmouth last month launched a “value assurance program” that allows homeowners to apply for compensation from the college for property-value losses related to Rennie Farm.

The 48 or so owners who fall within the program’s geographic limits may ask Dartmouth to reimburse the difference when their homes are sold below value. The college may buy those properties outright if their owners are unable to find buyers.

Members of the residents’ steering committee, some of whom were excluded from the program, are hoping to persuade Dartmouth to expand the area covered by the market-calming efforts.

To that end, the committee in its mailers is asking residents in a 1.5-mile radius around Rennie Farm, an area reaching as far as Lyme Road to the west, to sign a retainer for Walsh. Once a critical mass of 80 percent of the roughly 220 area landowners join up, residents will have enough leverage to negotiate with Dartmouth, the mailer says.

“We want to treat Dartmouth with respect,” Peter Spiegel, co-chairman of the committee, said in an interview, “but we feel that singly, individually, we don’t have as much of a chance of influencing Dartmouth, so this is our way of doing that.”

Spiegel, whose home on Ferson Road to the south is not included in the program area, acknowledged that Dartmouth’s data indicated he ran little risk of contamination. Nevertheless, he said, he was having difficulty selling. “What’s incontrovertible is that I don’t have a lot of customers,” he said.

Spiegel, a former chair of radiology at Dartmouth Medical School, now known as the Geisel School of Medicine, said the college should be commended for instituting the value assurance program.

“That’s very decent of them,” he said. “That’s very honorable of them. But they should take into account not just the immediate periphery but all of the property owners within a significant radius — say, a mile and a half.”

He declined to comment on the details of the neighborhood committee’s plans, noting that the group, whose other co-chair is local physician Ellen Waitzkin, is scheduled to meet this weekend.

College spokeswoman Diana Lawrence said administrators were aware of the neighborhood committee’s efforts.

“We are willing to talk with any of the property owners and listen to their concerns and position,” she said in an email last week.

The college last month turned on a “pump-and-treat” system for the contamination at Rennie Farm, and says it recently has received a federal permit that it needed to reach full operational capacity.

College officials estimate that the $2 million treatment facility, a series of filters and pressurized tubes housed in portable structures atop the hill, will need at least five years to remove all of the contaminant from the water.

The system costs about $190,000 annually to operate and maintain, administrators say.

On Feb. 18, 2½ weeks after starting up the treatment system, Dartmouth invited the public to Rennie Farm for an open house.

“I hate to say ‘state of the art,’ but this is a state-of-the-art treatment system,” Jim Wieck, Dartmouth’s lead environmental contractor, said as he gave a tour of the facility to residents and the media.

The pumps, Wieck explained, are arrayed in an arc to the north and east of the dump site, in the direction that he believes water naturally runs off. They siphon off the contaminated water into a filtration system that removes the dioxane and returns the resulting clean water to nature.

Many of the residents’ questions, however, focused not on the new equipment but instead on their concerns about the value assurance program.

“The elephant in the room is how you came up with the limits,” Doug Tengdin, whose Ferson Road property was not included in the program’s eligible area, told Dartmouth officials during the open house.

Ellen Arnold, an associate general counsel who serves as Dartmouth’s director of real estate, explained that the college had defined the geographic limits of the program based on its scientific understanding of who was at risk for contamination.

Tengdin countered that buyers and real estate agents, whose opinions most directly shape the market, are more likely to follow their own instinct than Dartmouth’s science when deciding whether to buy a house, and for how much.

“The conflict here is that you’re using a science-based solution but the market doesn’t necessarily follow hydrology,” he said.

“We needed a rational basis on which to base our area,” Arnold said, adding that similar programs had successfully calmed housing markets near other pollution sites.

Lawrence, the college spokeswoman, expanded on Arnold’s reasoning last week, saying the program area was influenced by the college’s belief that the 1,4-dioxane contamination is not widespread.

“An overly large program area would add to the discomfort and harms the market,” she said in an email. “The real estate agents we have spoken with seem satisfied that we used the best scientific analysis to project the properties that might be impacted by the 1,4-dioxane, even if unlikely, and added buffer properties around them.”

Dartmouth and its environmental contractor hold a permit from the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services to discharge the treated water into the ground, which means they must limit the rate of pumping in order to avoid overflow.

Under the state’s permit, Dartmouth’s release of treated water “shall not result in erosion or sedimentation or directly impact any surface water, wetland, or storm water drainage way,” according to a January letter from Department of Environmental Services officials.

Plans shared by Dartmouth last month indicate that the pumping system discharges into the hillside below the Rennie Farm dump site and above Rennie Road, from which point the water presumably would follow groundwater northwest toward Hewes Brook.

The discharge point lies not far from the home of the Higgins family, whose well Dartmouth says it has contaminated with 1,4-dioxane.

After talks to relocate the Higginses at the college’s expense stalled last spring, lawyers for the family this winter said they planned to bring suit against Dartmouth using a federal law that allows private citizens to bring pollution charges to court.

College officials last week said they had received federal Environmental Protection Agency approval for discharge into surface water, which, after a 35-day waiting period, would allow the treatment system to run at full capacity.

The same day that Dartmouth gave tours of the treatment facility, residents gathered at a meetinghouse in Etna to discuss their options with Walsh, the environmental lawyer.

Walsh informed the crowd that value assurance programs such as the college’s are not unusual, according to the neighborhood committee’s notes.

All the same, he said, some aspects of its implementation remain shaky, as do underlying assumptions of the program: that Dartmouth’s treatment system will clean up the underground “plume” of dioxane within five years; and that the college’s efforts will dispel homebuyers’ fears.

“The scope of the impact of (the contamination) goes well beyond what is believed or what is identified as the plume,” Walsh added in last week’s interview. “There’s going to be obvious concerns that people” — buyers and real estate agents — “have, just due to lack of knowledge.” He said later, “Attempting to limit the value assurance program to a very narrow set of properties doesn’t fully address the issues that certain property owners in the area are going to have.”

Walsh’s firm, Weitz & Luxenberg, has litigated personal injury and environmental claims across the country, winning more than $17 billion in verdicts and settlements for its clients, according to its website.

The law group was one of many others involved in a multibillion-dollar settlement in 2013 against BP, the multinational oil company, stemming from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Erin Brockovich, the law clerk and environmental activist famed for an eponymous film portraying her in 2000, is working with the firm in Merrimack, N.H., where perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, has been found in drinking water.

Walsh also discussed the merits of litigation at the February meeting, raising the possibility of neighbors’ filing joint or separate suits over losses to their property value or in the sales of their homes.

“You do not have to have a home directly threatened by the contamination plume to sue for an injury,” the committee’s notes said.

The neighborhood group’s mailer says that Walsh is investigating the Rennie case on contingency, meaning that those who sign his retainer agreement would not pay anything up front.

More than 50 residents have signed already, said the letter, which was dated Feb. 25.

The letter lists as members of the steering committee several neighbors who last summer lobbied Dartmouth to expand the scope of its cleanup.

Although it’s unclear whether they did so at the neighbors’ behest, school officials later met several of the demands of Spiegel, Waitzkin and the other residents by installing additional water monitoring wells, holding regular informational meetings and exhuming a burial plot on Rennie Farm suspected by the neighbors — correctly — to contain waste.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or at 603-727-3242.