Contaminant ‘Migrating’: Traces of Carcinogen Seep Toward Hanover Middle School

Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Hanover — A carcinogenic contaminant that has long been known to be under the ground at CRREL could be seeping across the street and toward Richmond Middle School.

Parents and staff at the middle school were notified yesterday that the school property was tested for trichloroethylene vapor over the weekend, and the results showed one reading of the contaminant within the building. The traces of the contaminant were so faint, however, that it isn’t yet raising alarm among administrators.

“This gave us a preliminary understanding that we’re in no danger,” SAU 70 Superintendent Frank Bass said. “We can continue now with further testing knowing that nothing has been brought to our attention that has brought us concern.”

School administrators were notified three weeks ago that the Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, or CRREL found elevated levels of trichloroethylene on the property’s boundary line. That raised concerns that the contaminant may have “migrated” toward the middle school and other nearby properties.

Trichloroethylene, or TCE, was used at CRREL from the 1960s to 1987 as a refrigerant. TCE was kept in a storage tank, which leaked. Another tank containing TCE exploded in 1970.

Cleanup efforts and testing of TCE levels have been under way for the past 20 years, including testing of ground water. Vapor intrusion only became an issue within the last three years, said Darrell Moore, a project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New England district. Moore has spent the last year testing the boundary soil at the CRREL facility, and recently found elevated levels of TCE soil vapor concentrations as deep as 50 to 75 feet below the ground’s surface.

This has caused the Army Corps of Engineers to expand its vapor intrusion monitoring to adjacent properties, including the middle school. Moore said he is only worried about the air, and said there is no potential for water contamination outside the CRREL facility. Plus, the middle school is on municipal water.

Environmental experts had proposed conducting tests throughout the middle school during mid April, but Bass and other administrators didn’t want to wait that long. Instead, a Hapsite test was done Thursday night by the Army Corps of Engineers, which found no evidence of the toxin. The Hapsite test traps air samples from various areas of the building, such as classrooms or inside cabinets, and yields real-time results.

The school administration then hired its own environmental consultant to conduct more tests over the weekend. Several canisters were placed in classrooms, the basement and offices, and tested the air for eight hours. The results found a “faint” amount of TCE in principal Jim Nourse’s office, but the level was so low that it could have been ambient or background levels, Bass said.

Since TCE has been used in dry cleaning, trace levels can be found in the environment.

Similar canister tests are usually sent to the lab and take several weeks to analyze, but the supervisory union worked with its environmental consultant and was able to arrange for the results to be sent to Burlington, analyzed and returned on Monday morning.

“Once we knew about this, we had a responsibility to deal with this as effectively and as prudently as we could, and as quickly as we could,” Bass said.

The school district will hold an open house at 7 p.m. on April 2 at Richmond Middle School to explain the situation in more detail. Representatives from CRREL and the Army Corps of Engineers will also be present.

And while the school administration feels it is in the clear for now, the testing is not complete.

The Army Corps of Engineers will conduct its own canister test on April 1 and 2 and results are expected to be back by April 15, said Lawrence Cain, a risk assessor for the Army Corps of Engineers New England district.

“The tests have given us the immediate confidence that we don’t have a problem,” Dresden School Board Chairman Carey Callaghan said. “But we’ll learn more and this issue is not going to go away. It’ll have to be an effort to look at this on a longer term.”

The Army Corps of Engineers also will be testing other facilities adjacent to CRREL, including two neighboring buildings that house Brendel and Fisher Wealth Management, Hanover Family Chiropractic, Hanover Yoga and several single-family rental housing units owned by Dartmouth College.

Only the five housing units closest to CRREL’s southern property line in the Fletcher-Cedar neighborhood will be tested, according to a letter obtained by the Valley News that Dartmouth sent to its tenants.

“We’re asking the folks who live across the street for a right of entry which would then allow us to go in and sample the vapor (in the buildings’ interiors) ... It’s all very preliminary at this point,” said Bryan Armbrust, a spokesman with the Army Engineer Research and Development Center.

Dartmouth spokesman John Cramer said the college’s involvement is “very narrow,” but that the college will work with the town, school and CRREL throughout the testing process.

The Fletcher-Cedar neighborhood is made up of single-family rental units that are mostly occupied by Dartmouth employees, faculty and staff, he said.

“We have no reason to believe at this point that the TCE vapors are present in any of the buildings, so we’re confident that the monitoring and testing program that (CRREL is) starting in the Fletcher-Cedar buildings … will do what it’s meant to accomplish,” Cramer said. “(O)ur concern is doing utmost to answer any needs and concerns of our community members and protecting their health and well-being.”

Coordinating testing dates for Dartmouth housing is still in the works. Moore and Cain, who are both largely responsible for the testing, said testing will be done at Brendel and Fisher and the building that houses the Hanover Family Chiropractic and Hanover Yoga next week.

Moore and Cain will be analyzing soil vapor, sub-slab soil and indoor air. To test the soil, small holes are often dug underneath the carpet, Cain said.

Moore said that he doesn’t know if the TCE is migrating, but if the vapor contaminant is found outside of the CRREL property line, then tests at additional locations could be scheduled.

“We’re supposed to chase the contamination, and I sure hope we don’t have to go too much further,” Cain said.

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223. Valley News staff writer Maggie Cassidy contributed to this report.