Part Two: TCE Testing Process Took Years; Army Lab’s Neighbors Mixed on Pace of Cleanup Effort
Anita Hamalainen plays with her twin 2-year-old sons, Leo, left, and Kai Snyder, in the yard of their home in the Fletcher-Cedar neighborhood next to Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover. The home tested negative for trichloroethylene. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Zoe Courville, of Norwich, a research mechanical engineer at CRREL, drops her son, Teague Fenzel, 1, off at the CRREL day care center before heading to work at the laboratory recently. Despite the TCE spills at the lab and the later discovery of TCE vapor in Army lab buildings, Courville said she remains comfortable with using the on-site center. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Chiropractor Michael Mundy works with a patient at Hanover Family Chiropractic in Hanover. “I have a neighbor that I feel is trying to do the right thing,” he said. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Haishan Li stands in front of her family’s home at the Fletcher-Cedar neighborhood in Hanover. Li said she and her family have decided not to move after no levels of TCE were detected at the home. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Hanover — In 2006, a year after Richmond Middle School opened, state environmental officials confirmed what a Dartmouth College official had suspected years before: Vapor from trichloroethylene, a cancer-causing solvent known as TCE, might pose a threat to the health of people exposed to it.
That year, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services issued safety guidelines to address TCE vapor in the ground and indoor air, calling for heightened monitoring and remediation in cases where the vapor exceeded certain thresholds.
Around the same time, Tim McNamara, Dartmouth’s associate director of real estate, again expressed concern about TCE soil vapor concentrations at the Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory. Dartmouth hoped to start construction of a new housing development called Rivercrest to the north of the Army lab, which is also located next to a college housing complex and across Lyme Road from the middle school.
TCE had been used as a solvent and a refrigerant at the Army lab from 1961 to 1987. But two major spills in 1970 caused the chemical to soak into the soil and groundwater. While the Army lab had installed a water treatment facility in the early 1990s, the idea that vapor from the solvent could travel through the soil and enter buildings above was just coming to officials’ attention in the early 2000s.
But a response was slow in developing, according to government records examined by the Valley News. According to those records:
∎ Preliminary testing for TCE vapor at the Army lab — the source of the contamination — did not begin until 2008, two years after the state’s guidelines were issued.
∎ Full testing did not begin until 2010, and it was not until 2011 that a day care center located on the lab’s campus was tested for the presence of TCE vapor. The test showed elevated levels of the chemical in the center’s basement and, to a lesser degree, on the main floor.
∎ Despite the growing awareness of a potential TCE problem spreading toward the borders of the lab’s 28-acre campus, its neighbors along Route 10 — residential neighborhoods, businesses and the 400 -student middle school — weren’t notified until March 2013, when they learned their buildings would be tested.
Testing began on the lab’s campus as early as March 2010, and TCE levels were high enough to prompt relocation of some employees and the installation of a ventilation system at the day care center in October 2011.
Tests results thus far at Richmond Middle School, Dartmouth housing and other adjacent properties show that unsafe levels of TCE vapor have not reached those locations, officials say.
However, the vapor has migrated slowly and officials say monitoring will need to continue for years. As a preventive measure, Dartmouth is installing ventilation systems under 32 residential properties it owns south of CRREL.
Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin expressed frustration that the town hasn’t always been informed in a timely way about TCE testing and remediation efforts at the Army lab. Griffin said she heard that testing was being expanded to the middle school this spring only because the town’s health officer was copied on a letter from the state Department of Environmental Services to CRREL — and Griffin happens to be the health officer.
“They deal with their own federal regulatory realm and thinking of the local host communities is an afterthought,” Griffin said of Army lab officials. “We should be informed. They’re embedded in a neighborhood, whether they like it or not.”
(Darrell Moore, project manager with the Army Corps of Engineers, said he had been sending emails to Jonathan Edwards, who was Hanover’s health officer, but didn’t know that Edwards had retired in December. Moore said he then began communicating with another town employee.)
Bert Davis, the director of the Army lab, said he wasn’t trying to hold information back, but said he follows the lead of experts from the Army Corps of Engineers New England District and other organizations, including the Department of Environmental Services and the Army Environmental Command.
“CRREL goes on the recommendations of that team about community outreach and so forth,” Davis said. “Early on in the TCE thing, CRREL directors have learned that it’s better to follow the lead of the team of experts rather than independently communicating in our own way.”
State regulators have also defended the pace of TCE testing and remediation.
“Since we’ve taken this project over, I think the project has moved significantly forward,” said Scott Hilton, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services project manager who is overseeing the TCE cleanup. “I know people think everything happens in a snap of a finger, but in the real world, it doesn’t happen that way.”
State and Army lab officials say the 2006 guidelines marked the beginning of a slow process that required lab officials to secure federal funding, schedule testing and then process the results. Hilton said officials and regulators had to work their way outward from the center of the contamination site, expanding the circle of testing only after they had found contamination. The federal lab has spent $2.4 million on vapor intrusion testing and remediation since 2010.
“You can’t sample the whole town without the justification because you could easily be accused of wasting taxpayer dollars,” Hilton said.
Michael Mundy, who owns Hanover Family Chiropractic next door to the lab, said he’s been comforted by the thorough testing for TCE within his building and said he’s glad that underground ventilation systems can be installed if potentially unsafe amounts of TCE are found.
“I have a neighbor that I feel is trying to do the right thing,” the chiropractor said.
New Vapor Intrusion Guidance
In 2006, shortly after the state issued its vapor intrusion guidelines, Dartmouth’s McNamara placed a call to Robert Minicucci, then the state Department of Environmental Services official responsible for monitoring TCE cleanup at the Army lab.
“Tim expressed a concern about past soil vapor concentrations, at least some of which exceed the new soil vapor (i.e., indoor air quality) standards,” according to Minicucci’s notes in a Department of Environmental Services file.
McNamara’s call came as he and other Dartmouth officials were planning to build a new residential community north of the Army lab. There was already another such community, the 32-unit Fletcher-Cedar neighborhood, to the south.
Despite McNamara’s questions in 2006, a preliminary test for vapor intrusion wasn’t conducted until 2008, and the first formal round of testing didn’t start until March 2010.
Minicucci was the project manager in the early 2000s and said he recalls McNamara’s questions and the subsequent testing for TCE vapor, but said for him it was “nothing of real concern.”
Minicucci said the Department of Environmental Services is simply an oversight organization. At the time, Minicucci said, he was trying to persuade lab officials to eliminate the source of the contamination in the soil.
“I suppose I wish I could have done more,” Minicucci said in an interview. “But you do what you can with the information you have, and if new information comes up, you do the best you can. The important thing is protecting human health and the environment.”
Hilton took over as the Department of Environmental Services project manager in 2008, replacing Minicucci. As he had while overseeing other sites, Hilton pressed for TCE vapor testing at the Army lab — a position reinforced when the Department of Defense came out with its own vapor intrusion guidelines in 2009.
Nonetheless, the first round of testing didn’t get under way until March 2010. Hilton said it took time to get up to speed on contamination at the lab. And once Hilton and the Army lab agreed that testing was needed, they had to secure funding from the Army Environmental Command.
Byron Young, the Army lab’s environmental protection specialist, said when he started educating himself about vapor intrusion in 2006, he thought, “there’s something to this.”
But Young didn’t do his first test until 2008. He said it wasn’t until about July 2006 that he started looking into vapor intrusion, and by then, the federal fiscal year was almost over (it ends in September). It took time to request the necessary funds and decide where he wanted to test.
“That’s when I said, ‘Let me take a cursory look at this and see if there’s anything to worry about,’ ” Young said. Young hired a contractor to set up a canister to test the air inside one office. Even though the test found levels below the threshold for action, Young said, he decided to press ahead with more testing.
“I was concerned,” Young said. “I don’t want to see anybody in an environment that is hurtful to them.”
Those tests didn’t occur until 2010. Young said it took time to get funding secured, decide on the scope of work and find a contractor to conduct a “full-blown investigation.”
“The time frame between 2008 and 2010 sounds like a long time, but in government, it’s not,” Young said.
At Dartmouth, meanwhile, the college’s plans for its new Rivercrest development were put on hold after the recession hit in 2008. McNamara said recently that he wasn’t concerned about the existing housing complex to the south, given that it was far enough away from the TCE contamination zone in the northern part of the Army lab complex.
However, in a 2003 letter to Army lab officials, McNamara wrote, “As you know, the College operates rental housing projects for our employees and students in both the Rivercrest (immediately to the north of CRREL) and Fletcher Circle/Chandler Circle (immediately to the south of CRREL) neighborhoods. We want to ensure that both the short-term and long-term safety of the residents of these neighborhoods is ensured.”
In a recent interview, McNamara said that when the Rivercrest project was put on hold, he saw no need to pursue further testing.
“If the project had gone forward, that issue would have been brought up again to make sure it was resolved,” he said.
A Wake-up Call
Since 1990, the federal government has spent approximately $16 million — including the $2.4 million spent on vapor intrusion testing — to clean up TCE contamination at the Army lab, said Laurie Haines, the Army Environmental Command’s environmental restoration manager for the site.
In March 2010, TCE vapor was detected in six locations in the main laboratory building at concentrations three to six times greater than the threshold set by the Department of Environmental Services for workplaces. TCE vapor was also found exceeding threshold levels in other lab buildings. Under the guidelines, the threshold levels, or “screening levels,” mean that further testing or remediation should be undertaken. However, there are no specified levels that indicate that a building should be evacuated.
Davis took over as director of the Army lab in 2006. He said he knew about the TCE issue but thought the problem had been dealt with after the groundwater treatment system was installed. The 2010 tests showing high levels of TCE vapor under and inside the lab’s buildings shook him.
“When I saw the measurements and I saw the concentrations … it was a surprise and a wake-up for all of us,” Davis said.
Testing was expanded to other lab buildings in 2011, including the Cradle and Crayon day care center, where lab employees and other parents leave their children during the workday. The tests found TCE levels in the basement beneath the child care center at least four times above the threshold level. Children don’t spend time in the basement, but the testing also found slightly elevated levels on the main floor where children are most of the day.
That was enough to prompt lab officials to install a “sub-slab depressurization system” — similar to those used to vent radon gas from beneath homes — under the child care center building. The venting system worked. Subsequent testing found TCE levels had fallen to near-negligible levels.
Davis himself used the on-site day care center for his son and daughter. Although the levels found on the main floor were just slightly above the state threshold, “that was the one that wrenched my gut,” Davis said. “Getting something where the kids and parents are, that was a grim hour for me until I sat down with the experts.”
But Davis said he felt better when he learned about the effectiveness of the ventilation system. With the ventilation system in operation, he said, “it’s about as clean as the air outside.”
In February 2013, the Department of Environmental Services updated its health warning for TCE and said that women exposed to the chemical face an increased risk for fetal cardiac malformation during the first trimester of pregnancy. The guidance said that if TCE in the air exceeds a certain level, women of child-bearing age should be relocated.
The new revised warning didn’t surprise Army lab officials. They had already learned about the latest research, and as a precautionary measure relocated six employees from the main laboratory basement and to areas with acceptable indoor air prior to November 2012.
“I believe it shows very responsive actions by DES,” said Hilton about the new revised warning.
Community Questions Testing
Through 2012 and into this year, testing continued on the Army lab property, moving out from the original site of the TCE contamination to the property’s boundaries.
Throughout 2012, TCE vapor had been detected at those boundaries and officials announced in March of this year that Richmond Middle School and neighboring businesses and Dartmouth-owned homes would require testing.
The test results coming back from Richmond Middle School and other abutters have left neighbors and officials at the Army lab and the Department of Environmental Services relieved.
In almost every case, the amount of TCE detected in the indoor air was at or below the threshold level.
Anita Hamalainen, who lives at the college’s Fletcher-Cedar complex with her husband and three children, said there was a panic when neighbors were first told about the TCE testing. In March, five residents asked to move.
“It was terrifying,” Hamalainen said. “When we first moved in, the babies were 3 months old, so thinking that they spent the first two years of their life in a toxic home was terrifying.”
In recent months, Dartmouth has tested all 32 homes for TCE and most of the tests didn’t detect any traces of the chemical. For residents, that brought a bit of calm.
Five homes were tested in the Fletcher-Cedar neighborhood by the Army Corps of Engineers, and TCE vapor levels ranged from undetectable to slightly above the Department of Environmental Services’ residential screening level of 0.4 micrograms per cubic meter: A reading of 0.42 micrograms per cubic meter was found in the basement of one of the Cedar Drive homes. (A microgram is one-millionth of a gram.)
“We live in a toxic world and we’re all OK with it until somebody actually comes into your house and shows you exactly what is going on in it,” Hamalainen said. “But most people don’t have to have it in their face.”
Many residents of Dresden Road, which runs behind Richmond Middle School, said recently they had few concerns about the TCE contamination.
The sentiment was the same among parents who have children at Cradle and Crayon, the child care center at the Army lab.
Research mechanical engineer Zoe Courville has worked at CRREL for nine years and has sent her son, Teague Fenzel, to Cradle and Crayon since he was 3 months old. Courville has worked in the lab’s cold rooms and knew the history of TCE.
“I was working and pregnant and I know the levels are low enough that it’s not a concern,” Courville said. “My son was born healthy.”
Courville said she researched TCE and vapor intrusion and attended several staff meetings. She also talked with Davis, the director of the Army lab, who shared his knowledge of the testing.
“We’re all researchers and scientists so we’re all skeptical until we research things ourselves,” Courville said.
Bri Schreiner, who sends her 2-year-old daughter to Cradle and Crayon, said she hadn’t heard about the testing until she read recent news accounts about the process at Richmond Middle School. She immediately emailed the director of the child care center.
Schreiner said she quickly became comfortable with the testing after seeing the levels that were found in the child care center and after receiving a quick response from Cradle and Crayon’s director.
“Anywhere we live there will be risks. Anywhere we send our kids there will be risks,” Schreiner said. “That’s just life and I have to choose my battles.”
Sarah Brubeck can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3223. Maggie Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3220.
This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. Bert Davis, the director of the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, has a son and a daughter. An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect gender for one of the children.