Dartmouth Settles With Hanover Family Over Rennie Farm

  • A sign posted at the property of Rennie Farm in Hanover, N.H., October 25, 2015. Over 20,000 pounds of rodents and other small critters used for lab experiments were exhumed from Rennie Farm in 2012 and sample tests of nine private wells showed at least one contaminated well located at the property of 9 Rennie Road in Hanover, N.H. (Valley News - Kristen Zeis) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/19/2017 11:29:12 AM
Modified: 4/20/2017 12:14:28 AM

Hanover — Dartmouth College has reached a settlement with a couple whose well was contaminated by chemicals from the school’s former dump site for laboratory animals, putting to rest the threat of a federal lawsuit against the college from the family.

Dartmouth says it will purchase the Higgins family home at 9 Rennie Road, near the Rennie Farm burial site in northern Hanover. Neither side would disclose the total dollar amount of the settlement.

The college also will pay compensation for the family’s emotional distress and create a health maintenance trust fund for Deb and Richard Higgins, who have reported ill health effects that they attribute to drinking contaminated water.

“When we found out ... that Dartmouth had come to an agreement, it immediately lifted the weight off of us,” Deb Higgins said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “It’s huge. This is a big deal. The amount of stress that we’ve been under — it’s — I don’t know how you say it. We can breathe.”

The Higginses, represented by Norwich attorney Geoffrey Vitt and Weathersfield attorney Anthony Roisman, previously had threatened to bring suit in U.S. District Court in Concord under a federal law that allows private citizens to pursue polluters.

This puts an end to that potential case, according to their paralegal, Sarah Nunan. “This allows the Higginses to move on with their lives,” she said.

Diana Lawrence, a Dartmouth spokeswoman, framed the benefits in a similar way.

“This will allow the Higginses to move on with their lives in a new location,” she said. “It will also allow Dartmouth to continue to work on treatment and remediation of the Rennie Farm site, in conjunction with the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, and the implementation of the value assurance program being offered to residents in the area.”

Ever since Dartmouth discovered a chemical called 1,4-dioxane in the Higginses’ drinking well in late 2015, the college has been running a filtration system to clean their water. Dartmouth also has offered medical advice and access to a new drinking water system that it is installing on the Rennie Farm property.

The Environmental Protection Agency classifies 1,4-dioxane, a chemical used in industrial and household cleaners and solvents, as a “likely human carcinogen.”

The Higginses said they experienced health problems — dizziness, sores on their skin — that disappeared when they stopped using their well water. The chemical appeared in the family’s water supply at about twice the state standard for ambient water quality.

Dartmouth, in its response to a letter from the family’s attorneys threatening the federal suit, denied that the contamination was responsible.

The 1,4-dioxane is believed to have spread from the site where Dartmouth’s medical school in the 1960s and ’70s dumped thousands of pounds of animal carcasses that had been used in radiological experiments.

Dartmouth in February launched a “value assurance program” to prop up the real estate market around the waste site that allows homeowners to apply for reimbursement if they have to sell their property below value or can’t find a buyer at all.

Ellen Arnold, an attorney who serves as Dartmouth’s director of real estate, said she had received positive feedback from Realtors, lenders and landowners so far, though there have been no closings yet.

Not counting the Higgins home, four properties are close to selling, she said on Wednesday.

Residents of the wider area around Rennie Farm, however, have questioned why the value assurance program allows only a limited number of homeowners to apply for compensation.

The neighbors have been working to retain a lawyer from a major New York City environmental firm to negotiate with Dartmouth about expanding the program and to explore the possibility of litigation.

“My first thought is that I’m very relieved and happy for the Higginses,” said Peter Spiegel, an emeritus Dartmouth faculty member who co-chairs the “North Hanover/Lyme Steering Committee,” as the residents call themselves. “They deserved to be treated well — without the extensive hassle.”

Spiegel said it was too soon to tell how the settlement may or may not affect the neighbors’ case, and noted that one of their objectives was to obtain fair compensation for the Higginses, as well.

Last year, talks with Dartmouth to relocate the Higginses stalled and then went to mediation. Nunan said that an additional round of mediation, on April 5 of this year, finally yielded results.

Arnold said that the payouts do not mean that Dartmouth believes the waste site caused the Higginses harm.

“As is typical of most settlements, there’s no admission of liability,” she said.

None of the parties involved in the case would discuss the size of the settlement, but Deb Higgins said it was large enough for the couple to buy land and build a house somewhere else.

The town assessor valued the family’s 3.7 acres and home at 9 Rennie Road at $282,000 in 2015, according to municipal records.

Deb Higgins grew up near Rennie Farm. Her husband, Richard, works nearby as a contractor and carpenter. Higgins said she and her husband want to stay in the area, both in order to be close to their jobs and to her parents, Don and Alinda Roberts, who live next door and are not planning to move.

The Higginses are looking both in Hanover and elsewhere.

“It’s definitely not going to be Rennie Road,” she said.

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

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