College to clean toxic farm site

by Erin Lee | 8/18/16 7:44pm

Concerned neighbors petitioned the College on July 21 asking for a more thorough cleanup of Rennie Farm. The College has been investigating and monitoring the site since 2012 and is working on a remediation plan to treat contamination that will be submitted for approval on Sept. 1.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the College used approximately one acre of the 223-acre Rennie Farm as a laboratory dump site to bury animals used in animal testing, and the site has since contaminated a private well.

The petition, submitted on July 21 to College and state officials by residents near the site, expresses “grave concern” about persistent sources of contamination on the site.

“Residents are outraged at Dartmouth’s utter disregard for the environment and groundwater, indifference to the impact on a well-dependent population, and Dartmouth’s neglectful and incomplete response to remedy this spreading contamination,” the petition stated.

The document, coauthored by Marjorie Rogalski, a resident on Rennie Road, physician Ellen Waitzkin and former chair of Dartmouth’s radiology department Peter Spiegel, among others, received 36 signatures from neighbors.

Many of the test animals buried on the site at Rennie Farm, a forested, currently unused College property, were contaminated with radioactive chemicals. The College contracted Clym Environmental Services to excavate the site in November of 2011. Workers found sealed bags filled with animals, broken bottles of chemicals, syringes and other loose waste items, according to a 2013 project report by Clym. Much of the waste and soil removed during the month-long excavation was found to be radioactive.

Over 20,000 pounds of rats and other rodents were removed from the site in 2011, according to the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine in 2012.

The project also unexpectedly unearthed rusted metal cans “leaking a purple colored liquid with strong solvent odor,” according to the Clym report.

A test of the burial site in April 2012 detected the chemical 1,4-Dioxane in groundwater at 190 parts per billion, many times the state standard of 3 parts per billion. The chemical is classified as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans” by the Environmental Protection Agency and is known to increase risk of liver cancer.

Last September, four years after the 2011 excavation, Deb and Richard Higgins’ residential well, close to Rennie Farm, was found to have levels of about six parts per billion of the chemical, double the state standard. The College advised the Higgins family to avoid ingesting the well water, installed a treatment system and has been providing them with bottled water to use. Mediation proceedings with the Higgins, which began in February, are currently ongoing, College spokesperson Diana Lawrence said.

Waitzkin said that she and other neighbors were shocked upon learning of the existence of the Rennie Farm burial site and the Higgins’ plight. Despite living in the area since 1999, Waitzkin said she had not been aware of the 2011 excavation.

“I think that observing all this, we lost a great deal of confidence in Dartmouth’s ability to do the right thing,” she said.

A site survey in early June revealed buried waste and animal carcasses that had not been removed during the 2011 excavation. The discovery prompted the College to propose a plan to remove any remaining waste and treat the contaminated water.

The resulting work plan was submitted on July 25 and approved by the state Department of Environmental Services and Department of Human Health Services on Aug. 4 and Aug. 9, respectively. . The plan proposes a 30-by-30 foot excavation, on-site radioactivity monitoring and soil sampling to test for chemicals.

Associate general counsel for campus services Ellen Arnold said the plan was drafted based on prior data collected and its scope was identified before the neighbors submitted their petition.

The neighbors are asking for a much larger scope of excavation and monitoring. The petition asks for the College to remove the entire acre of burial site removed and replaced with clean backfill, in addition to more rigorous testing and sampling to track the spread of contamination and more transparent dissemination of information to the public.

The group is cognizant of the issue’s urgency, as the contamination continues to spread and migrate as time passes.

“The force of entropy [is] spreading it into the environment, like a cancer,” Waitzkin said. “The cancer’s going to keep growing until it kills the patient, and we didn’t want this to keep growing until it killed our neighborhood environment.”

The petition is the result of three to four months of research through reading documents and consulting legal and environmental experts. Once neighbors began reaching out to each other and discussing the problem, it started a “chain reaction,” she said.

The College responded on Aug. 12 in a letter signed by director of environmental health and safety Maureen O’Leary and Arnold. The letters states that the College believes it can address a number of the concerns raised by the petitioners.

“We probably haven’t done as good a job in the past as we could have in communicating, but we’re very committed to trying to understand what their issues are and address them and listen,” Arnold said in an interview.

The College will submit a remediation plan on Sept. 1 that will include a pump and treat system to decontaminate the water. The goal is to install the system by the end of the year, Arnold said.

“We know what direction the contamination is moving in and are feeling comfortable that this proposed pump and treat system will be effective,” she said.

Lawrence wrote in an email that more than $5 million has been spent on cleanup at Rennie Farm so far.

“I can’t speculate on the final figure,” she wrote. “However, the College is committed to spending whatever is necessary to address the contamination expeditiously and effectively and to protect the health of the neighbors.”

The Department of Environmental Services will sponsor a public information sessions at Dartmouth on Sept. 13, during which College and state officials will respond more completely to the neighbors’ concerns.


Correction appended (Aug. 24, 2016):

The original version of this article stated that the College used one acre of the 223-acre farm as a burial site. The article should have noted that the College used approximately one acre of the farm. The article incorrectly stated that the remediation plan was in response to a July 21 petition for a more thorough cleanup. In fact, the College has been investigating and monitoring the site since 2012. The article, in noting the College's response to the contamination of the Higgins' well, did not mention that the College also installed a water treatment system.