Jim Kenyon: Complications of Contamination in Hanover

  • Deb Higgins uses water from a cooler to wash lettuce while preparing dinner at her home in Hanover Center, N.H., on June 23, 2016. Since September Deb and her husband, Richard, have used bottled water from the cooler to prepare food, drink, and brush their teeth. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Richard Higgins kisses his wife, Deb, on the cheek while out on the at their home in Hanover Center, N.H., on June 23, 2016. Both of the Higgins expressed that having each other is a big help in dealing with their water contamination issues. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Sarah Priestap

  • Richard Higgins collects water for his wife, Deb, to use to wash lettuce while preparing dinner at their home in Hanover Center, N.H., on June 23, 2016. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Sarah Priestap

Valley News Columnist
Published: 6/25/2016 11:24:44 PM
Modified: 7/26/2016 1:35:21 PM

Deb and Richard Higgins were always particular about the water they drank. So much so that they went to the trouble of filling jugs with fresh tap water from the well at their home in Hanover Center to bring on weekend camping trips to state parks.

“We didn’t want to drink the campground water,” Deb Higgins said. “We wanted to drink our own well water.”

No longer.

Last September, Dartmouth College, which owns an undeveloped 218-acre parcel across from the Higginses’ two-bedroom home on Rennie Road, asked to collect samples from their well. A few days later, the results of the lab tests came back. The Higginses’ well, located just a few feet from their house, was contaminated with concentrations of a chemical called 1,4-dioxane at approximately twice the levels set by the state, the tests showed.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has classified 1,4-dioxane as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.” Long-term exposure may also cause kidney and liver damage. “We were drinking a pollutant and we didn’t know it,” Richard Higgins said.

Oftentimes, finding the source of water contamination can be a needle-in-a-haystack exercise. But in the case of the Higginses’ well, everyone involved agrees: Dartmouth was responsible.

The remaining issue — and it’s a big and potentially costly one — is what to do about it.

Norwich attorney Geoffrey Vitt, who is representing the Higginses, recently shared with me a tall stack of letters, emails and other documents that have circulated between his office, the college and state environmental offices. They go a long way in explaining how the environmental problem got to this juncture.

Ellen Arnold, the college’s associate general counsel for campus services, also took time to talk with me last week. In addition, I met several times with the Higginses, who can’t help but suspect that the health woes they’ve experienced in the last few years are connected to their tainted water supply.


All parties agree that this story begins with lab experiments involving animals that Dartmouth Medical School conducted 50 years ago.

When the dead animals, which included dogs, rabbits and sheep, had served their purpose, they were wrapped in plastic and hauled 10 miles from campus to college-owned land, known as the Rennie Farm, in a remote part of town. With the state’s approval, Dartmouth turned what was once farm land into a graveyard for “animal waste from life sciences experiments conducted in the 1960s and 1970s,” an environmental subcontractor working for the college stated in a 2013 report.

As far as anyone knows — and Dartmouth’s record keeping back then left much to be desired — the college dug more than 40 burial plots in the hilltop pasture. Some of the holes were at least 9 feet deep.

“The college failed to line the dump site or bury the materials in containers that would not decay,” Vitt wrote to the college in February. “As far as we can determine, the college did nothing to prevent materials from decaying and seeping into groundwater.”

In the mid-1970s, Dartmouth, along with many other medical schools, switched to more environmentally friendly methods to dispose of lab animals. Today, the college freezes the carcasses and turns them over to an Illinois-based waste management company.

After stopping the burials, I think it’s fair to say, the college didn’t give the Rennie Farm pasture much thought. Over the next 30 years or so, trees and shrubs sprouted up.

Meanwhile, 900 feet from the pasture, down a steep wooded hill, a disabled single mom was starting to make a life for herself and her young daughter on Rennie Road.

Deb, a paraplegic since she was a teenager, grew up not far from Rennie Farm. As a kid, she had gone snowmobiling in the field turned animal graveyard. “Nobody really knew what Dartmouth was putting up there,” she told me. “We didn’t pay any attention to it.”

Deb’s parents, Alinda and Don Roberts, owned a piece of undeveloped land next to their house on Rennie Road. In the late ’90s, they started cutting trees and clearing brush on the 4-acre lot to make room for their daughter’s future home. Deb and her daughter, Gabby, lived in her parent’s basement during the two years of weekends and evenings that it took to build the one-story house.

To accommodate Deb’s wheelchair, door entrances were made extra wide. Space under the kitchen sink was carved out so she could move about more easily while washing dishes. The basement, where she did laundry, was outfitted with an electric chair lift. “My family and friends put so much time and effort into making it into a space that works for me,” Deb said.

Shortly thereafter, Richard came into their lives. He was a carpenter for an Upper Valley construction company, where Deb worked in the office. “One date, and he was hooked,” Deb joked.

Richard, eight years younger than Deb, immediately took to fatherhood. During the first 10 years of marriage, they spent a good deal of their time in gyms and on the sidelines. From the time Gabby started playing sports in elementary school all through high school, “We never missed a game,” Deb said.

Richard still found time for deer and partridge hunting during those years. In the fall, he ventured into the woods across the road from their house, which weren’t posted and still aren’t.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked Richard to show me around the woods and open land at the top of the hill. A shallow stream trickles down the hill and into a gully across the road from their house. The water funnels into a culvert that runs underneath Rennie Road and empties out next to the Higginses’ driveway.

Richard pointed out the monitoring wells scattered throughout the woods that Dartmouth has drilled during the last few years. Deer tracks dented the dark, marshy soil.

At the top of hill, the sun shone brightly on the pasture, which was dotted with more monitoring wells. Richard showed me the stone wall on the edge of woods where he’d sit during hunting season to watch for deer and partridge. “It was so peaceful, but after everything we’ve found out about what Dartmouth dumped up here, I don’t feel comfortable,” he said. “I don’t even like walking around here.”

Later, back at the office, I started reading the documents that Vitt had given me. I stopped at the letter Vitt had sent to Arnold, the college attorney overseeing the matter, in February.

“Between 2007 and 2009, the college decided to clean up Rennie Farm,” Vitt wrote. “The college’s motivation for this action was not to clean up a problem that it had created and improve the area. The college told the state of New Hampshire on numerous occasions that there was a party interested in purchasing Rennie Farm and it was clear to everyone that as long as the hazardous waste remained, the college could not sell the property.”

An interested party approached the college years ago, but a deal didn’t develop, said Arnold, who oversees Dartmouth’s real estate department. The 218-acre parcel has an appraised value of more than $1.6 million, according to Hanover property tax records.

In 2007, the college installed the groundwater monitoring wells I had seen in the field and periodically collected samples. “These samples revealed no contaminants (either chemical or radiological) above associated reported levels,” reported Clym Environmental Services, a Maryland-based medical waste disposal company.

But Dartmouth didn’t get serious about cleaning up the burial grounds for several more years. The college says several notices were mailed to the Higginses to alert them of the plans, but it turned out they were sent to the wrong address.

The entrance to the private road that Dartmouth uses to reach the hilltop is a half mile, and a sharp corner, from the Higginses’ house. In November 2011, the college brought in construction equipment and refrigerated storage trailers to the field, which isn’t visible from the main road.

“We could hear their generators, but that was it,” Deb said.

The Higginses didn’t see the cleanup workers in hazmat suits, or the campus security guard stationed at the entrance to the access road.

On Nov. 15, 2011, the New Hampshire Radiological Health Section inspected the site. With the state having given its OK, digging began that day.

“The excavation did not go well,” Vitt told me.

That’s an understatement.

Cleanup crews discovered early on that they were dealing with more than animal carcasses. “Evidence of broken bottles, syringes and lab waste was included with bagged lab and animal waste,” wrote a Clym administrator in an 11-page project report sent to Dartmouth’s environmental health and safety office in February 2013.

The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services also received the report, which made it a public record. This allowed Vitt’s office, and Valley News staff writer Rob Wolfe, who has been covering this story, to obtain copies.

At another burial site, Plot No. 28, “vials and syringe plungers were found in significant volume in the soil,” Clym wrote. “More glass bottles containing liquids, most broken, but some unbroken were recovered. Efforts were made to remove all loose waste items from the plot, but site conditions made this difficult.”

At Plot No. 2, “Once the waste was unearthed, strong odors of biological decay and naphthalene (a pesticide found in mothballs) were encountered. … Some bags showed signs of root intrusion and waste including animal bones, plastic items and broken glass were found uncontained.”

Four days into the dig, a collection of “metal cans was unearthed. These cans were badly rusted and leaking a purple colored liquid with strong solvent odor. The soil was discolored around the cans and the ground water was also discolored with a purple sheen.”

According to an EPA fact sheet, 1,4-dioxane is a solvent that can be found in products including paint strippers, dyes, greases, varnishes and waxes. Scientists also use it in experiments to initiate chemical reactions. The “1,4” refers to the way the atoms are connected in the solvent.

The household chemical has made news in the last few years. In January 2014, The New York Times reported that consumer products manufacturer Johnson & Johnson had agreed to stop using 1,4-dioxane and formaldehyde in its No More Tears baby shampoo and 100 other baby products.

The two potentially harmful chemicals have “come under increasing scrutiny by consumers and environmental groups,” the Times wrote. “In response to consumer pressure (in 2012), the company pledged to remove both chemicals from its baby products by the end of 2013.”

For Dartmouth, digging up the burial sites was just the first step. Cleanup crews filled “super sacks” with contaminated soil and waste. On Dec. 2, 2011, trucks began transporting the contaminated materials to hazardous waste disposal facilities in Tennessee, Texas and Utah.

For the next 17 days, trucks came and went from the dump site at Rennie Farm. On Dec. 22, 2011, the site was closed for the winter. The next day, the Valley News reported that Dartmouth had found more than 20,000 pounds of dead animals in black plastic bags.


At first, Deb Higgins didn’t think much about the sores that had suddenly appeared between her fingers in the summer of 2012. Her hands were already calloused from rolling her wheelchair day after day.

“I figured it was from washing my hands so much,” she said.

Later, Deb and Richard both began feeling the skin in their mouths peeling away. “It would start within an hour of us brushing our teeth,” Deb said. “We changed toothpaste four times, thinking we were having a reaction to different brands.” Gabby didn’t have any problems. After leaving for the University of Vermont in the fall of 2011, she hasn’t lived at home full-time.

Since Deb, 46, doesn’t have health insurance and Richard, 38, has only catastrophic coverage through his employer, they put off seeing a doctor.

It was all so hard to get a handle on. The ailments seemed to come and go. But finally last summer, Deb couldn’t put off going to her doctor any longer. She was experiencing dizzy spells. One ear constantly felt clogged.

A brief exam didn’t turn up anything.

Then, last September, Dartmouth came calling. The Higginses met in her parents’ driveway with Maureen O’Leary, the college’s director of environmental health and safety. A hydrologist with GZA GeoEnvironmental, a Norwood, Mass., firm working for the college, joined O’Leary.

The gist of the meeting was that Dartmouth had been testing the water from the monitoring wells across the road for several years. The college now wanted to expand the testing to the Higginses’ and Deb’s parents’ wells.

Both families agreed.

Tests showed that the Robertses’ water had some 1,4-dioxane, but it was below the level set by the state.

Not so for the Higginses’ well.

When O’Leary called back with the news, she advised them not to use their well water to drink, brush their teeth, cook or wash dishes. O’Leary said the college would be sending a truck with bottled water that evening, which it’s been doing for the last nine months.

About two weeks after they stopped drinking their well water, the Higginses said, their health problems, including her dizzy spells, started to go away.

Richard, who works for Norwich builder G.R. Porter and Sons in the winter, started his own lawn maintenance business last summer.

One of his customers is a retired Washington, D.C., attorney who now lives in Hanover. After getting the test results from Dartmouth, Richard mentioned what was going on.

The attorney recommended calling Vitt, who was a partner in a leading Washington law firm before moving to the Upper Valley in 1990.

Vitt agreed to look into the matter. In November, he followed up a conversation with Arnold with several letters. On Dec. 9, Arnold wrote back. She pointed out that the college was supplying bottled water and had installed a water purifying system in the Higginses’ basement.

Arnold also informed Vitt that the college was digging a “community well” on another part of the Rennie Farm property. Dartmouth has offered to pipe water from the new well more than a half mile to the Higginses’ house.

“We don’t want their water,” Richard told me. “We have no desire to have water that comes from their land in our house. We don’t know if there are other burial sites up there that they haven’t found yet.”

Arnold told me the “college has worked really successfully with the state of New Hampshire to get this site remediated” and it’s “very close” to completing the project. Dartmouth has tested the wells of about 20 residents in the area. The Higginses’ well was the only one to exceed levels set by the state, Arnold said.

The college continues to test the Higginses’ well monthly. While the level of 1,4-dioxane has decreased since the first test was conducted last September, it still remains above the state limit. Dartmouth says the declining levels of 1,4-dioxane are an indication that the problem is subsiding, and the worst is over. The Higginses and Vitt aren’t convinced.

The seasons and rainfall amounts could affect the concentrations of 1,4-dioxane, Vitt said. That also helps explain why the Higginses’ health woes would come and go while they were drinking from their well, he said.

In his Feb. 8 letter to Arnold, Vitt suggested the college purchase the Higginses’ property. In checking with real estate agents, Vitt said, he had confirmed the property has “no value as a residence. Dartmouth may have a use for the property for storage or the like, but no one would buy the property to live there.”

This spring, the college and the Higgins, represented by Vitt, participated in a one-day nonbinding mediation session, but it didn’t result in a settlement. The two sides continue to talk, Vitt said.

Last year, the town of Hanover assessed the Higginses’ property at $282,400. Vitt estimated that it would cost approximately $800,000 to purchase land and build a new home of the same size and quality in Hanover.

The house and driveway would also have to be handicap accessible to allow Deb the “same freedom of movement that she now enjoys,” said Vitt, who is working on a contingency fee basis.

“We’re a working-class family,” said Deb, the office manager for Audio Video Advisors in Thetford. “Our home is our biggest asset, or at least, it was.”

Last week, Arnold told me the college is “certainly willing to relocate (the Higginses) permanently. We understand it’s upsetting to them and the uncertainty is hard on them. We want to resolve this the best we can for everyone involved.”

The Higginses also will need help paying for health insurance to cover potential medical problems down the road, Vitt said. “The college compromised their water source and put their health at risk,” he argued. “This is an expensive problem to deal with.

“Even for Dartmouth, it’s real money.”

Deb and Richard are planning a camping trip for the upcoming holiday weekend. Needless to say they won’t be bringing their tap water.


Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.


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