Part One: Intruder at the Border; A Toxin Emerges As Health Threat, But Official Action Comes Slowly
Hanover firefighters hose away debris after a tank containing the chemical solvent trichloroethylene exploded at CRREL’s loading dock in July 1970. (Valley News - Larry McDonald) Purchase photo reprints »
Students line up for lunch on opening day of the new Richmond Middle School in Hanover in August 2005. (Valley News - Caleb Raynor) Purchase photo reprints »
Tim McNamara, center, Dartmouth’s associate director of real estate, shows officials plans for renovations at the Hanover Inn during a March 2011 site visit. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »
Workers prepare a rig to drill a test well on the western side of CRREL’s property in March. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Larry Cain, with the Army Corps of Engineers, explains to Adina Desaulniers, Christine Desaulniers and Lisa Blackburn, all of Hanover, about the extent of TCE testing at Richmond Middle School in Hanover in April. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Hanover — Industrial pollution involving toxic chemicals is often associated with abandoned factories in Rust Belt towns. The last place it might be expected to pose a hazard is near a residential neighborhood and a new school in an Ivy League college town.
But that’s the case in Hanover, where earlier this year officials acknowledged that a cancer-causing chemical had been found at the border of the Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory on Lyme Road. The chemical, trichloroethylene, or TCE, is a solvent that had been used at CRREL for nearly three decades until 1987.
In March, the Army Corps of Engineers began tests to determine if TCE had spread beyond the lab to reach Richmond Middle School across the street, along with Dartmouth College housing to the south and neighboring properties.
No unsafe levels have been detected so far, but officials say the contaminants migrate slowly and will need to be monitored for years to come.
While the news of potential TCE contamination came as a shock to many neighbors, government records examined by the Valley News show that it is far from a new development.
TCE from the Army lab had leaked into the ground during many years through the 1970s. Despite a much-heralded effort to clean up the chemical from groundwater beneath the lab’s campus, public records show that for the past decade, quieter concerns have swirled about another form of contamination — TCE vapor — traveling through the soil beyond the campus and possibly seeping into buildings where people live, work, study and play.
According to government documents and Dresden School District files:
∎ A decade ago, in 2003, a Dartmouth real estate official raised concerns about TCE vapor reaching homes to the south of the lab — many of them occupied by Dartmouth staff and their families — and posing a threat to a new cluster of college residences planned on the Rivercrest property to the north. In the years that followed, the real estate official asked for tests to determine if the threat was real.
∎ Earlier, in 2001, Dartmouth, the town of Hanover and the Dresden School District had begun moving forward with a proposal for the college to provide a piece of land directly across Route 10 from the Army lab for what would become the new Richmond Middle School. The deal, part of a complicated land-swap transaction known as the “tri-party agreement,” was formally approved in 2004.
∎ Questions about TCE vapor raised by the college apparently never made it to officials planning the school. A 2003 report by a school district consultant concluded that TCE did not pose a threat, but officials acknowledge that the report involved no independent testing and did not examine vapor contamination — an issue that was just beginning to come to the attention of environmental regulators.
∎ In 2006, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services for the first time issued guidelines regarding TCE vapor contamination. Three years later, the Department of Defense came out with its own guidelines. But it wasn’t until 2010 that formal testing began to determine if vapor had infiltrated work areas at the Army lab and an on-site child care center. And that testing took place over several years — despite TCE levels that prompted the relocation of some Army lab employees from areas deemed a concern.
∎ It wasn’t until this year that the Army lab alerted neighbors and school district officials to the risk posed by TCE vapor, as testing began in classrooms, homes and businesses near the lab.
Residents in the neighborhoods surrounding the Army lab and Richmond Middle School said in interviews that the shock of hearing about TCE in March has subsided, and many expressed confidence that officials are handling the matter appropriately.
Rob Hawthorne, who has lived on Dresden Road for about 18 months, said he thinks the levels of TCE reported so far are “negligible” when “compared to all the other chemicals we’re exposed to through the course of the day.”
Others remain critical.
Meifang Chu, who lives on Dresden Road near Richmond Middle School and whose daughter attends the school, said she was pleased with school officials’ initial efforts to conduct tests and inform the public.
“But now we don’t hear anything,” Chu, a part-time math and physics lecturer at Dartmouth, said recently as she stood in the doorway of her home. “They don’t come forward with information, they don’t volunteer unless they’re pressured. … The tests right now seem OK, but you don’t want the problem to come up again and deal with it in 10 years’ time.”
And to Lebanon resident Anthony Roisman — a managing partner with the National Legal Scholars Law Firm who has been on the legal team in several cases involving TCE exposure, including a high-profile case in Woburn, Mass., that became the basis for the book and movie A Civil Action — the response has been underwhelming.
Long-term testing must be completed before officials can accurately judge the risk, he said.
“There is no safe level of a human carcinogen. So there is a risk, even if it’s only a small risk, that you get cancer if you’re exposed to trichloroethylene,” Roisman said. “It’s true there are plenty of other things — pumping your own gas — that may expose you to a bigger risk, but this is an additional risk to all those risks you already have … for no reason. There’s no reason people should be exposed to an additional risk.”
Minor Leaks, Major Spills
For decades, TCE was commonly used in a variety of industries. Over time, however, its risks to human health became clear.
In 1987, the Environmental Protection Agency classified TCE as a “probable” human carcinogen, but then withdrew the assessment two years later. In 2011, the EPA again reversed course and warned that TCE was carcinogenic to humans.
TCE has not been used at CRREL since 1987.
Scientists at the Army lab study sea ice, permafrost and environmental factors in the Earth’s coldest regions. For instance, scientists study and develop the best ways to maintain a tunnel in Alaska and a runway in Greenland, both of which have permafrost issues.
Scientists also study questions such as how to detect oil under ice and how to safely clean up oil operations in ice regions.
At the Army lab, TCE was used as a solvent and refrigerant in rooms where the temperature can reach minus 31 degrees Fahrenheit as scientists test tools and materials.
CRREL has about 240 employees at its 28-acre campus north of downtown Hanover, and the facility has 24 “cold rooms” for research. Dartmouth and the lab have an intertwined history going back to the early 1960s, when college President John Sloan Dickey helped lobby to bring the research facility to Hanover. Most recently, Dartmouth sold a nearly 19-acre parcel, which is part of the Army lab campus, to the Army in 2012 for $18.6 million.
Large quantities of TCE — no one knows exactly how much — escaped between 1961 and 1987, according to a 1991 report by Army Capt. Karen Faran. Pipes in the cold rooms leaked, causing puddles of TCE to collect on floors.
But that was nothing compared with what happened in 1970.
Two major TCE spills occurred at the Army lab that year, the first in May, when the refrigeration system was shut down due to a blown gasket, according to Faran’s report. It required eight days to transfer about 6,000 gallons of TCE into another storage tank.
Two months later, an explosion occurred when a welder was working on a partially filled TCE tank. About 3,000 gallons of the chemical spilled into a parking lot on the property’s northeast side. The Hanover Fire Department responded and washed most of the spilled chemical down a storm drain, according to Faran’s report.
Officials didn’t keep records of the amounts of either spill, they say, so it’s impossible to know how much TCE soaked into the soil and the groundwater.
John Truman, a 61-year-old Grafton resident, was on Hanover’s volunteer fire squad in 1970 when the call came in about the explosion. He said he and other firefighters were told that if they felt queasy, they should move away from the area and get some fresh air.
The firefighters were on scene for just a few hours, but Truman remembers the men didn’t wear respirators and took turns giving each other breaks from the fumes.
“I’m wondering if people did any follow-up,” Truman said. “All the volunteer firemen, were we dropped through the cracks and missed? I would have thought that when this was deemed a carcinogen that they would have followed up.”
Peter Kulbacki, current director of Hanover’s public works department, said there are no records that would indicate whether any TCE passed into the town’s sewer system as a result of the 1970 spills, but he said it’s likely. Even if it did, he said, the TCE would have flowed into the Connecticut River. The plant didn’t have the technology to strip TCE out of the water before it was discharged.
After the spills, not all of the TCE was washed away. Some of it lodged in the soil and began to leach into the groundwater beneath the lab.
Two decades later, in 1990, the chemical was found in three samples taken from wells on the lab’s campus. As a precaution, nine water supply wells also were tested on the Vermont side of the river in Norwich. TCE was detected in two of the private wells, less than half a mile from the lab facility.
The discovery prompted the Army to spend about $1.5 million on a permanent water treatment facility that is still in use today.
Of the five production wells on the Army lab’s campus, four remain contaminated with TCE, said Darrell Moore, a project manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The lab gets its drinking water from Hanover’s municipal water system, while water from the ground wells is used for facility operations.
Officials hope that all traces of TCE will eventually leave the groundwater. But that could take a century, Moore said.
As officials monitored and cleaned up TCE at the Army lab, community leaders were focused on a different challenge: the burgeoning student population at Hanover High School and Richmond Middle School, two aging structures in the Dresden district that serves Hanover and Norwich. Both schools were located on Lebanon Street, a short walk from Main Street in Hanover.
By early 2001, the Dresden Building Options Committee had drawn up a list of seven possibilities, some calling for selling the two buildings and building new schools elsewhere. But many residents objected to ceding more downtown property to Dartmouth, which was interested in purchasing the parcels.
In a letter dated Aug. 28, 2001, Paul Olsen, then Dartmouth’s director of real estate, wrote to Dresden committee Chairman Steve Woods suggesting that the college could donate a parcel of land it owned across from the Army lab. The letter followed a meeting with school officials earlier that week.
“While the college remains very interested in the possibility of acquiring the Lebanon Street property, we are equally interested in making sure the community finds good long-term options for its schools,” Olsen wrote.
A few months later, in November, the Building Options Committee presented a report to the School Board narrowing the list of options down to two recommendations — one of which was the Lyme Road site.
In bullet points weighing each possibility, the report noted “potential environmental issues to contend with at Lyme Road site (hazardous materials at CRREL or Dartmouth Printing?).”
The school district asked Dartmouth Printing directly about those concerns. The company responded in September that it was in compliance with state environmental regulations.
Questions about the Army lab were later addressed in an environmental site assessment prepared by Lebanon-based Pathways Consulting. The report, which was delivered in October 2003, acknowledged that TCE levels in soil and groundwater at the Army lab exceeded state and federal standards.
However, it concluded “the TCE contamination posed no risk to human health or the environment, and groundwater modeling indicated that there is no off-site migration of TCE contamination.”
Those conclusions helped to green-light the middle school project, school officials said. But that study did not mention the emerging threat of vapor contamination, and relied solely on the Army lab’s own reports.
Dana Arey, Pathways’ vice president and director of environmental services who prepared the 2003 report, said in an email to the Valley News that its findings on TCE were not based on any independent research.
“All references to TCE … stem from reports prepared by (or on behalf of) CRREL,” he said.
He added that the procedure is typical for these types of reports: A “phase 1 environmental site assessment” is “intended to evaluate a property for recognized environmental conditions based on a visual site reconnaissance and reviews of reasonably available local (municipal), state, and federal documents,” he wrote. “Our typical protocol is to research information at the local planning, zoning, and assessor’s offices, at the NHDES and EPA websites, and through environmental reports that the owner may provide.”
The School Board, in turn, relied on Pathways’ conclusions, said former School Board Chairwoman Margaret Cheney, now a Vermont state representative from Norwich.
Jonathan Brush, Dresden’s director of facilities, concurred.
“Yes, why wouldn’t we?” he said. “We’re hiring a consultant because that’s what you do. It’s not your expertise.”
At the many public meetings held to discuss plans for the new middle school, there is little evidence of officials or residents worrying about the potential school site’s proximity to the Army lab.
One exception was Kevin Mabey, whose home on nearby Dresden Road abuts the school property. Mabey recalled recently that he raised concerns during public meetings.
“I said I remember because my wife was born and raised here, and she remembers back in the ’70s and ’80s when they had to evacuate the neighborhood because of spills,” he said. “We were assured by the people on the board that those issues had been resolved and there was no concern, the probability of it happening was minimal, and I remember them saying they had an emergency plan in place … and I was like, all right, but still it could happen.”
Mabey, like others, couldn’t recall anybody else raising concerns about the Army lab’s proximity at meetings about the school plan.
“It just seemed odd to me that you would want to put a middle school full of students across the street from a research facility that has a history of leaks,” he said.
In April 2004, the land-swap involving the town, school district and college was finalized. Dartmouth received several small parcels of town-owned property. In return, the college donated the Lyme Road land and kicked in $9.7 million to the school district, which reduced the burden on taxpayers.
Olsen, now retired from Dartmouth, said the arrangement came about as a result of the town, district and college “all working together.”
“Clearly they (school officials) were the ones who had the need to find a solution. We were not needing to do anything,” he said.
“So ultimately it was a matter of their coming to Dartmouth and asking if there was a way (the college) could help with the school with this problem they had.”
In 2003, as school officials were seriously considering the Lyme Road site, the Army lab issued a news release declaring: “After extensive investigations, it was determined that the contamination did not pose a threat to human health or the environment and there was no off-site migration of the contaminated groundwater.”
The media took note, too, with the Valley News running a story in April 2003 under the headline “Cleanup of Army Lab Spill Nearing Completion.”
That cleanup effort focused on TCE in the underground water supply. But around that time, some environmental officials were becoming aware of a new, more amorphous, health threat: TCE vapor that could travel under the ground and into buildings — a process known as “vapor intrusion.”
In 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency drafted guidelines for evaluating the presence of TCE and other chemical vapors in buildings. But the draft guidelines were simply that — a draft. The document noted the guidance was a recommendation and “should not be construed in any fashion as mandatory.”
In 2003, the Army lab released a remedial action plan for containing TCE contamination on its property. In April, the Army lab held a public meeting to discuss the plan, but records show that only nine people signed in, mostly employees of the lab or state environmental agency. No one from the Dresden School District signed an attendance sheet, records of the meeting show.
One person in attendance, however, was Tim McNamara, who was project manager at the Dartmouth College Real Estate Office at the time and is today vice chairman of the Lebanon Planning Board. He asked for soil vapor monitoring on the north and south boundaries of the Army lab, according to meeting minutes.
In a recent interview, McNamara said the existence of groundwater contamination made him wonder if there might also be a risk of contamination from TCE vapor. He knew that TCE wasn’t completely soluble in water and could turn into a gas and rise through the soil.
“I don’t think there was much discussion back in 2003 about soil vapor,” McNamara said. “My questions weren’t based on any great scientific knowledge. I just thought if you can smell it, then it must be able to vaporize. Perhaps I was ahead of my time.”
Records with the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services show that McNamara followed up in a letter to CRREL officials, dated May 12, 2003, stating he was concerned about migration of TCE vapor through the soil to adjacent properties.
Dartmouth owns 32 rental houses to the south of the facility that are occupied mostly by college staff members and their families. At the time, Dartmouth also had plans to build a 300-unit housing development to the north of the lab.
“We want to ensure that there is no potential for off-site migration of TCE vapors that would impact either the health of our current or future tenants or result in conditions that would impede our redevelopment plans,” McNamara wrote. “Therefore, we request that CRREL conduct soil vapor monitoring along the common boundaries between CRREL and the Rivercrest and Fletcher/Chandler Circle properties to verify that there is no potential for off-site vapor migration.”
McNamara said in a recent interview that he wasn’t worried about vapor entering buildings. Instead, he was worried about vapor moving laterally through the soil and rising up from utility trenches. He was concerned that construction workers would be exposed to contaminated vapor as they worked on sewer, water and electrical lines.
The Army lab took more than a year to provide the information that McNamara requested. In July 2004 — two months after ground was broken on the new middle school — officials sent McNamara the results of testing for TCE vapor in the soil, according to Department of Environmental Services files.
Ten tests were conducted at the north side of the CRREL property line, as McNamara had requested. The amount of TCE found in the soil vapor varied from undetectable to 2,800 micrograms per cubic meter.(A microgram is one millionth of a gram.)
Robert Minicucci, the former DES project manager for the CRREL site, said that while he doesn’t remember much about the testing, the results nonetheless didn’t alarm him.
“It wasn’t anything that upset me,” Minicucci said.
While no firm regulatory levels had been established at the time, the Army lab tests showed TCE vapor in the soil as much as 13 times the level the 2002 EPA draft guidelines had set as cause for monitoring, records show.
(Today, firm DES guidelines are in place. Under them, the 2004 results showed a TCE vapor level as high as 30 times the threshold level for land beneath a workplace.)
Tests were not conducted at the southern end of the Army lab’s property line near the existing Fletcher-Cedar neighborhood.
McNamara said he doesn’t remember why testing wasn’t done on the southern boundary. A decade ago, he said, his main concern was the Rivercrest property because the 1970 TCE spills had occurred on the northern side of the Army lab property.
When McNamara received the soil gas results, he also wasn’t “terribly concerned,” he recalled. “Nothing caused us to say, ‘Oh my gosh, we should do something over there.’ ”
Nor did officials at the Army lab find cause for alarm.
Although some of the soil vapor results exceeded levels in the EPA’s draft guidelines, no tests were done within 100 feet of the buildings, said Byron Young, who is CRREL’s environmental protection specialist.
Young said he reviewed the 2004 results and saw no reason for an immediate follow-up. The federal guidelines were only in draft form, Young said, and state environmental officials hadn’t flagged any concerns, either.
The 2004 tests were unvalidated, Young said, and he noted that there is a difference between soil gas in the ground, which was tested in 2004, and vapor intrusion — when contaminated gas actually enters a building.
Young said he still doesn’t think the 2004 data is accurate or that it should be used for comparison today.
“We considered the discussion to be closed,” Young said.
“DES and Dartmouth seemed to be satisfied. We saw no reason to take it further.”
A New Middle School
While these conversations took place between Dartmouth and Army lab officials, the college did not notify school officials or the public.
Though he had raised the question of vapor contamination in 2003, McNamara said in a recent email that he didn’t at the time know it would pose a threat.
McNamara was not involved in the transfer of the Dartmouth property to the school district in April 2004. A Dartmouth spokesman said McNamara would have had no reason to communicate his concerns to school officials.
“In 2003 it was a matter of public record that CRREL had experienced TCE spills which it was successfully remediating,” Dartmouth spokesman Justin Anderson said in an email to the Valley News.
“Tim was aware of the spills, and that they had occurred on the northern end of CRREL’s property. Because of the proximity of the spills to the Rivercrest property, Tim had questions about possible vapor intrusion onto Dartmouth land. … Tim was not focused on the possibility of vapor intrusion anywhere else, including the land on which the Richmond School was ultimately built.”
Olsen, the retired Dartmouth real estate official who was involved in the land swap, said he did not recall any concerns about TCE, soil gas or vapor intrusion being raised during the negotiations of the school land deal.
Cheney and fellow former School Board member Woods, who for some time chaired the Dresden Building Options Committee, also said they did not recall any warnings from Dartmouth about TCE vapor.
“I don’t remember it coming up as a concern. I definitely don’t remember that,” said Cheney. “If people had been aware of it, it certainly would have been a major concern.”
Construction began on the new middle school within weeks of the tri-party land-swap agreement in spring 2004, and the building opened to students in the fall of 2005.
The celebration surrounding the opening of Richmond Middle School in 2005 featured all the pomp and circumstance that might be expected for a brand-new school.
The school band played a drum roll, a red ribbon was cut, and Cheney passed out replica yellow hard hats to officials who helped oversee the $43 million project (which included renovating and expanding the Hanover High School building).
Curious parents roamed the halls with green maps to find classrooms. Students marveled at the new cafeteria, the auditorium with stadium seating and the gym that could easily host schoolwide events.
As students and teachers settled into their new surroundings, the science behind TCE and vapor intrusion continued to evolve, guidelines became stricter and testing on the Army lab’s campus proceeded.
Officials would learn that layers of fine silt mixed with clay in the soil act like a cap, forcing the TCE vapor to migrate horizontally until it reaches a more permeable substance — such as a building foundation — through which it can rise.
Five years after the school opened, in 2010, officials would find TCE concentrations in the air inside the Army lab that exceeded the minimum “screening” level set by the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services.
But it would be March of this year — more than three years later — before school officials were notified and testing was undertaken at Richmond Middle School.
Tomorrow: Despite a growing awareness of TCE’s risk, years pass before officials act.
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.