Dartmouth: Rennie Farm Contamination Has Spread to Second Well

Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Hanover — A second private well near Dartmouth College’s former dumping ground for the carcasses of contaminated lab animals has tested positive for a toxic chemical believed to have migrated from the site.

The latest detection caught college officials off guard because of its distance from other contaminated sites, and raised questions about how widespread the underground chemical stream is and the direction it is traveling.

The well is a residential water supply located nearly a mile to the northeast of Rennie Farm, administrators said in an email to neighbors on Monday.

Tests earlier this month detected the chemical — 1,4-dioxane — at concentrations well below the state standard for water quality.

Jim Wieck, the environmental contractor heading Dartmouth’s cleanup of the Rennie Farm property, said the private well was located on Hanover Center Road, on the border with Lyme.

The owners of the property where the well is located were not immediately available for comment on Tuesday.

The first private well contamination came to light about a year ago, after Rennie Road residents Deb and Richard Higgins were informed their well contained 1,4-dioxane at twice the state water standard of 3 parts per billion.

Often used as a component in solvents, 1,4-dioxane is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a probable human carcinogen.

The 1,4-dioxane at Rennie Farm is believed to have been part of scintillation fluid, a chemical cocktail that researchers use to detect radioisotopes.

Around the time that their well tested positive, the Higginses reported adverse health effects, including peeling of the skin in their mouths and sores on their bodies, that they said subsided when they stopped using their well water. They still are engaged in talks with the college over potential compensation.

So far, other wells in the immediate vicinity of the latest contaminated property have tested negative for 1,4-dioxane, college officials said.

In the second well, Dartmouth’s tests detected the substance at 0.28 to 0.30 ppb, about a tenth of New Hampshire’s standard.

College officials declined to say whether the residents had reported health effects. The residents have been given bottled water, according to a Monday email to the community from college administrators, and also will receive a “point-of-entry” treatment system for 1,4-dioxane and access to an independent health consultant.

On Tuesday, Wieck and Dartmouth representatives met with residents at the Rennie Farm to discuss the next steps.

Neighbors to the contaminated property gathered around a folding table, poring over maps just feet from a fence enclosing the burial site. They pointed out their homes, a few of them next door, and made arrangements with college officials to have their wells tested.

Amy Nichols, a Lyme resident whose home is practically adjacent to the latest contamination site — separated only by a thin strip of a neighbor’s land — told Wieck that she had not yet had her well tested for dioxane.

Nichols questioned why the college and its contractors hadn’t flagged her well for analysis in the same way as other nearby water sources, some of which Dartmouth has monitored for more than a year.

“If you were concerned about here,” she said, pointing to another resident’s nearby well on the map, before moving her finger to her own well, “why weren’t you concerned about here?”

Part of the reason, Wieck replied, was that he had not expected the dioxane to flow in the direction it did.

“This is a serious surprise,” he said earlier Tuesday afternoon. “Based on the data we had, it really didn’t look like it was going that way.”

Wieck said his team in coming weeks will make more measurements around the Hanover Center Road property to determine the path the 1,4-dioxane had taken.

For now, he said, the working theory is that the chemical plume traveled along a fracture in the underlying bedrock. This allowed the now-contaminated well to draw the 1,4-dioxane up a hill that college contractors, and many residents, had assumed would block the plume’s movement, Wieck said.

The depth of the second polluted well — more than 300 feet, according to state records — also could have contributed, Wieck said.

In an interview after the meeting, Nichols said she, too, had been surprised by the news that the property just south of hers was contaminated.

She remembered thinking, months ago, “We’re a mile (away) and we’re uphill — we’re fine.”

Now, she said, she was disturbed that the 1,4-dioxane had reached so far north and east. “It’s crazy — scary — that it could be so random,” she said.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Dartmouth medical researchers conducted radiological tests on animals and buried thousands of pounds of carcasses in sealed bags, along with drums of scintillation fluid, on the Rennie Farm hill.

The site was undisturbed for decades, until 2011, when college officials decided to exhume the lab waste. Administrators at the time said the excavation was meant to protect the environment and neighbors, but acknowledged in state regulatory filings that the college had a potential buyer for the land.

The dioxane was discovered the following year, at which point Dartmouth officials said they believed the chemical plume would stay onsite. Later, as it spread to the Higgins property and beyond, college officials said the 2011 excavation likely had set it in motion.

The main path of the plume was thought to be generally north and west, along a valley where a small stream joins with Hewes Brook, a tributary to the Connecticut River. Administrators in August found 1,4-dioxane in the unnamed stream, and on Monday, they said additional tests had located the chemical farther along the waterway to the northwest.

Dartmouth officials are working to install a pump system that could treat the tainted water, and Wieck on Tuesday said the college’s current plan was flexible enough to accommodate more findings of 1,4-dioxane.

The pump-and-treat system, as administrators are calling it, would be installed by the end of this year and would take a few more years to decontaminate the water.

All the same, Wieck said, other than by monitoring surrounding wells, there is no definitive way to control or track the spread of 1,4-dioxane along bedrock fractures and outside of the path of the primary plume.

“We’ll never identify where all the fractures are,” he said. “That’s just not possible. So there will always be uncertainty.”

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