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Dartmouth College extends deadline for land buyouts near medical lab dump site

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/24/2021 10:29:31 PM
Modified: 6/25/2021 10:50:22 AM

HANOVER CENTER — Dartmouth College is extending for another five years a buyout program it established to compensate landowners near Rennie Farm, its former medical lab dump site, after neighbors asked for it to be continued.

But college officials say the cleanup in the Hanover Center neighborhood appears to be working and that only one residential well has tested above drinking water standards for 1,4-dioxane, the potential carcinogen linked to the carcasses of lab animals that were buried at Rennie Farm some 50 years ago.

“Price protection is working, and the mitigation system is working, and the combination of the two has made the people in the neighborhood comfortable,” Tom Csatari, the Lebanon-based lawyer overseeing Dartmouth’s so-called “value assurance program,” said in an interview this week.

He said the college decided to extend the program from its planned expiration in February 2022 to February 2027 after neighbors concerned about the looming deadline for the program, which was launched in 2017, petitioned for the extension.

Csatari also noted that most residents have decided to stay despite the concerns about contamination.

“Out of the 35 residents, nearly 80% are still in the neighborhood,” said Csatari, who met with Rennie Farm neighbors on June 17 to discuss the program extension.

Under the voluntary program, which covers about 50 properties, most with houses, Dartmouth is compensating eligible homeowners who can’t get fair market value when trying to sell their home for the difference between the sale price and market value. The college also has agreed to buy properties in the designated zone covered by the value assurance program, or VAP, at market value that don’t sell after 180 days on the market.

“We were pleased with the two most recent VAP transactions. One sold at 100% of fair market value and the other sold within 95% of fair market value. And that was in (June and July) 2020, and that shows that the fear of stigma has disappeared on those two properties,” he said.

Real estate records indicate Dartmouth has taken a loss on at least one of the homes in the VAP, a property on Dairy Lane that it bought in early 2019 for $550,000 and then resold in May 2020 for $432,000. And a home on Hanover Center Road that Dartmouth bought for $704,000 in July 2017 is now on the market for $659,000, according to realtor.com.

From the mid-1960s to 1978, Dartmouth College disposed of laboratory animals in a small plot on the 223-acre former dairy farm. Then, in 2012, Dartmouth found 1,4-dioxane, which has been characterized as a likely carcinogen, in the groundwater at the site, and were concerned about a plume moving toward homes on Rennie Road. Since then, Dartmouth has spent more than $13 million on remediation, including a “pump and treat” system, according to Dartmouth spokeswoman Diana Lawrence.

Marjorie Rogalski, who has lived in the Rennie Farm neighborhood since the 1980s, signed the email petition circulated by residents leading the effort to urge Dartmouth to extend the program. Her water is tested annually, and she said that she has not been worried about the health effects of the contamination for “some time.”

“I think (Dartmouth) is doing the best job they can. For the situation being what it is, I’m happy that the college has decided to continue the program,” she said. “Other homes have turned over without the college having to intervene. I see that as a good sign for the home values.”

Officials connected with the Dartmouth cleanup said the plume has not spread.

Jim Wieck, of GZA GeoEnvironmental who is working with Dartmouth on the remediation project, also said only one residential well out of approximately 140 has ever tested above the New Hampshire limit of 0.32 parts per billion of 1,4-dioxane. In 2017, Dartmouth installed the pump and treat system which it expanded in 2020 to accelerate the cleanup.

“We’re seeing good progress, really significant reductions in the concentrations at the source area,” Wieck said. He added that there is “no plan to increase the size of the area covered by the VAP and there’s no change in the groundwater conditions or the position of the plume.”

He was not sure when Dartmouth would complete the cleanup. “We don’t have a good estimate of the end of the operation of the treatment system,” he said. “We’re collecting data now with the system running.”

Once he and his colleagues have about a year of data, they may be able to provide a more definite timeline.

Alinda Roberts and her husband, Donald, have lived in the neighborhood for about 50 years. Their daughter, Deb Higgins, and her husband were the only residents in the neighborhood whose well tested positive for 1,4-dioxane. The Higgins family settled with Dartmouth in 2017. They could not find another home in the area in their price range; they moved to Colchester, Vt. Roberts had not heard that the college had extended the buyout program, but she was not surprised.

“I expected that,” she said. “I don’t expect that they will ever get rid of that in the ground, ever.”

The Robertses have been drinking and cooking with bottled water since the contamination first became known. She said that she and he husband insisted that GZA GeoEnvironmental test their water monthly rather than every three months. She said that they were concerned about trace levels of 1,4-dioxane in their water, but Wieck said that no homes in the neighborhood have 1,4-dioxane levels in their water above the 0.2 micrograms per liter that laboratory tests can detect.

Nan Carroll, a real estate agent with Coldwater Banker Lifestyles, who has sold properties in the Rennie Farm neighborhood, said that there has been a “very limited effect” on home values, but added that it was “a little hard to tell.” The neighborhood is small, so the data is spotty.

“The college has been very responsive,” she said. “Buyers could speak directly to engineers who are on-site and answer their individual questions.”

Another agent at the firm, Mariruth Graham, said she thinks that with more information available and the remediation work underway, buyers are less nervous about purchasing homes in the neighborhood and are more concerned about high-speed internet service.

“I think initially before the public understood the impacts, it was scary to think of how far the contamination could have spread,” she said. “There were many houses outside the plume who were nervous about how their properties were affected.”

Sarah Stewart and her husband were initially put off by the contamination when they were looking for homes in the area in 2020, but ultimately bought a house on Rennie Road.

Stewart said her husband is a scientist and “he actually felt that because of the remediation work, the wells in our area were being tested more frequently than other wells anywhere, and we could have a lot more confidence in our water.”

These days, she and her husband, an assistant professor of immunology and microbiology at the Geisel School of Medicine, drink their tap water without worrying about 1,4-dioxane. Stewart is also unconcerned about her new home’s resale value.

“We’re hoping to be in our house for the rest of our lives,” she said. “The house is really beautiful. We’re nestled in the woods and we get a lot of birds and wildlife.”

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.




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