Trail of Toxins

November 12th, 2007

TCE Contamination on South Hill

By Erika Spaet

In February 2003, a 10-year-old Ithaca child collapsed in his elementary school classroom. The teacher rushed from the room and summoned the school nurse, who immediately called emergency medical technicians. The boy recovered, and doctors still don’t have an explanation as to why the boy’s heart stopped. But after hearing about the incident, Walter Hang had a hunch it might have had something to do with a problem that’s been creeping around South Hill for decades.

“I called a cardiologist I knew and explained the situation,” says Hang. “The kid didn’t have a heart attack; it turns out his heart stopped. He suffered from cardiac arrhythmia resulting from exposure to chemicals.”

The child’s mother, Laurie Dahl, had contacted Hang – a self-described public-interest troublemaker – a few years earlier, asking him whether her home might be affected by chemical pollution. At the time, her son was experiencing neurological problems, but Hang wasn’t able to deliver any results before she moved out of Ithaca.

Hang later discovered government records that showed trichloroethylene levels on certain areas of South Hill were extremely high — 1.1 million parts per billion parts water in 1987. The clean-up standard in New York is five parts per billion. Practically unbeknownst to the community, the Department of Environmental Conservation had ordered a groundwater remediation plan to clean up the existing toxins in 1994, but 10 years later, tests still found the level of TCE to be 28,000 parts per billion.

“That’s when I brought the problems to the attention of the community,” Hang said.
Hang held a press conference in May 2004 to relay some of his findings. Contamination on South Hill is a problem with a long history.

In the late 19th century, blossoming Ithaca was attracting people to what was then the center of town — South Hill. The Morse Chain Company was incorporated in 1898, and its employees began buying up houses downhill and east of the site. At the same time, the factory was making large industrial chains and dumping scrap metal covered in oil all over the site grounds — an estimated 300 gallons of oil would drip off of the 20 to 30 tons of scrap disposed of each day.

Residents began complaining; oil was running through the streets, and boats were getting gunked up in the polluted waterways. To this day there is oil pollution in Ithaca.

“Somewhere in that hill there’s 750,000 gallons of it,” says Hang.

The factory eventually stopped polluting in the 1970s and tried to clean up the mess with the solvent trichloroethylene, known as TCE.

“The problem is these solvents are way more toxic than the oil,” says Hang. According to the Department of Health Services, exposure to TCE is similar to heavy consumption of alcohol: it causes damage to the central nervous system and can even kill. Long-term effects can include sensory damage, loss of control of facial muscles, depression and anxiety, and damage to anything and everything the body needs to function: lungs, heart, liver and kidneys, immune system, and the reproductive system. It’s also a known carcinogen.

The EPA has set a maximum contaminant level for TCE at five parts per billion, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration set an exposure limit of 100 parts per billion for an eight-hour work day. Currently, Emerson is mitigating at levels as low as two parts per billion in homes. So, some might say, what’s the big deal?

“These compounds are very toxic,” says Hang. “There’s really no safe level of exposure to cancer-causing agents.”

Limited exposure to TCE can be detected in an individual’s breath, blood or urine, but long-term exposure can’t be easily tested. In other words, there’s no way to know what the effects of TCE for those on South Hill who have been exposed for years will be, and there’s virtually no way for individuals to be tested for exposure.

Residents hadn’t been alerted to the groundwater contamination and remediation being conducted. In fact, before Hang spoke up, TCE had been an issue they were either ignorant of or were hesitant to advertise for fear home sales would go down.

“The state knew hundreds of barrels of waste had been dumped on the hillside, and they never told the public? They never restricted access to the area?” he says. “Kids are running around the hillside all the time. It’s just a mind-boggling scenario.”

Hang is the president and founder of Toxics Targeting, a firm that uses computerized databases to access government data using the Freedom of Information Act. Individuals and companies hire Hang to compile data and maps showing where toxic dumping sites might be in relation to properties they may want to buy. And the problem on South Hill is something Hang and residents alike now know is one that isn’t easy to solve.

Ithaca’s geology is such that the TCE has seeped into the bedrock, deep under the soil. To truly remediate — that is, to eliminate the chemical altogether — would mean shredding up that bedrock, something homeowners are reluctant to advocate.

“It would be impossible to mitigate the entire hill,” says resident Tim Weber. “You’d have to dig the whole hill up, clean it and put it back.”

There are two ways to address the problem: mitigation and remediation. Mitigation would mean completely removing the toxins from the ground, while remediation – what’s mostly being done now – means reducing or eliminating the effects of the chemical. An example of remediation would be piping the gases from underneath a basement into the outside air. The basement is where TCE levels are usually the highest – Laurie Dahl’s son used to play in his basement fort for hours.

Now the ground underneath South Hill Elementary has tested positive for TCE, and Hang says the contamination has spread more than 1500 feet down the hill to the police station and courthouse. Dozens of homes have been and currently are being tested by Emerson Power Transmission, the company that bought the Morse Chain factory site in 1983. With the site, Emerson also bought a legacy of pollution.

In May of this year, the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation Division of Environmental Remediation informed Emerson that extensive tests must be done on the soil of South Hill. In addition, the company must conduct investigations into possible contaminated groundwater in residential areas. According to an Emerson spokesman, investigations began Aug. 13, and the report will be ready for submission by Dec. 7.
“Emerson Power Transmission has been aggressively working with the state to investigate this site and come up with a permanent solution to this situation,” says Emerson spokesman David Baldridge. “We’ve heard the concerns of the community and are still committed to addressing their concerns, as well as those of the state. Emerson Power Transmission takes this matter seriously and will continue to work cooperatively with NYSDEC to address all issues related to this site.”

Despite Emerson’s pledge of concern, those who live on South Hill say that they’ve taken things into their own hands. Weber feels that’s necessary, especially since Emerson’s obligation is to the state and not to the residents. They’ve hired their own legal team, though Weber can’t comment on what specific legal actions have been taken.

“There’s been a lot of effort on the part of the residents,” he says. “The general attitude is wait and see.”

Residents will wait for Emerson’s feasibility study, a plan for clean-up that includes all different options. Regional hazardous waste remediation engineer Gregg Townsend says that those alternatives will be presented to the state, which will then present them to residents via a series of town meetings. Together, residents and the Department of Environmental Conservation will come up with a master clean-up plan, one that Emerson will be responsible for executing.

Emerson representatives are quick to point out that it was the Morse Chain Factory, not the current owners, who caused the pollution.

“As the current owner, they do have some responsibility,” says Townsend. However, Townsend says that the previous owners of the site are involved and that Emerson is working with them to pay for the testing.

But perhaps the biggest issue at hand is how the clean-up of hundreds of other contaminated sites spotting upstate New York — Hang estimates there are about 450 of them — will be paid for. There isn’t always a private company like Emerson able to absorb the costs.

In certain situations the previous owner of a contaminated site is bankrupt; in that case, the state’s Superfund, a sort of emergency account, has to pick up the tab for remediation. This is a last-resort solution, and Hang thinks that the state has been hesitant to pressure Emerson.

“What is done here will have to be replicated all around sites in New York,” Hang said. “It’s setting a precedent, and it’s a very high bar.”

Hang thinks this could be a concern when it comes to sites reliant on Superfund money.
Townsend estimates that there are about 100 contaminated sites in District 7, the district that includes Ithaca. There are nine districts statewide, and Townsend said he doesn’t know an exact figure, but he doesn’t seem concerned about future remediation costs.

“I think that as far as hazardous waste sites go, we have identified just about everything that’s out there,” he says. “The program is over 20 years old now. Again, we’ve pretty much identified all of them.”

However, the adverse health effects of TCE and other poisonous contaminants is an issue that residents may have to deal with for a long time. “I’ve got a 3-year-old daughter, and I’ve lived here for 10 years,” says Weber. “Every strange ailment you get, [TCE] is kind of in the back of your mind.”

Weber has a friend who worked out of his basement office for years.

“He was diagnosed with a rare kind of throat cancer just a few years ago,” he says. “And he will never know if that was caused by TCE.”

Erika Spaet is a junior journalism major who decided after a rave on Hillview, where nobody had glow sticks but everyone glowed, something was definitely wrong. Email her at espaet1[at]

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SaHarrison Desert Harrison Flatau
Metrolollipopolis Jennifer Konerman
Tropic of Scurvy Heather Newberger
Copy Editors Danielle Sherwood
  Jenna Scatena
  Elliott Feedore
Adviser Mary Beth O’Connor
Chief Residents Abby Bertumen
  Kelly Burdick
  Bryan Chambala
  Sam Costello
  Cole Louison
  James Sigman

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Front cover and back cover of print edition by Jake I. Forney.
Section dividers of print edition by Jake I. Forney and Justin Lubliner.