Residents cope with toxic waste

When Elizabeth Hayes moved to Hamden in 1995, she had no concerns about her Newhall Street neighborhood. But since she moved there, Hayes said almost 25 people in a few block radius have died of various types of cancer, and several homes have shown structural damage. It was not until 1999, when the Hamden Middle School was being renovated, that local residents discovered they were living on top of a toxic landfill.

Local residents have formed a coalition to draw attention to the issue, but health officials said there is no evidence to link the waste to the high incidence of cancer. The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection will release a detailed report at the end of March, which will include information about the extent of the landfill area and the composition of the waste. Once the testing is complete, the DEP will discuss cleanup options with the town authorities.

Hayes helped found the Newhall Coalition, a group of local residents dedicated to working with the town government to clean up the area, and cataloguing the effects of the waste on resident’s health and property.

“The town knew about it, for a long time, the mayor especially, and he never said a thing,” said Hayes, who is now vice president of the coalition. “I had some renovation done to the property and the building inspector said it was just fine.”

Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell announced Tuesday that in addition to $1 million already committed to the DEP research, an additional $1 million to continue DEP efforts is expected to be approved when the State Bond Commission meets Friday.

The new state funds will be used to investigate the extent of the landfill as well as the potential structural damage in 150 homes.

Hayes said she appreciates the governor’s support and that more than 15 members of the coalition will attend the bond hearing on Friday.

“It’s great that the governor has put her stamp of approval on the furthering of the cleanup of the Newhall area,” Hayes said. “We hope that the bond commissioner will follow through and pass the proposal Friday.”

Contrary to the coalition’s claims, Leslie Balch of the Quinnipiack Valley Health District said tests of the Newhall Street area have not revealed any patterns between the health problems and the toxins.

“Although we have not done a large scientific study, we did look at some information that residents and occupants of the school had given, and we were unable to find any trends or document,” she said.

She said there were traces of arsenic in the upper soil samples, but residents would not be exposed to this toxin in normal activities. Despite pressure from the local residents, Balch said it is unlikely further tests will be done.

“We don’t anticipate that we would see anything different than what we have already seen,” Balch said.

Shannon Pociu, an environmental analyst for the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, said contaminants of concern include lead, arsenic petroleum hydrocarbons, and chlorinated solvents. Balch said she was unaware of the presence of the chlorinated solvents detected in a park soccer field.

Since the landfill was discovered, the town has worked closely with the Environmental Protection Agency and the DEP to determine the origin of the contaminants and how to remove them. The area received EPA superfund status in 2000, designating it as one of the top health hazards in the country. In late 2001 and early 2002, the EPA determined the contamination was mostly industrial and municipal waste from the Regional Water Authority, the Olin Corporation and the old Winchester factory.

“We don’t know the full extent of the landfill, but the school alone covers a 20 acre area and the fill is about 20 feet deep on average” Pociu said.

Pociu said most of the dumping was done between 1910 and 1950.

In addition to securing another $1 million for the Newhall cleanup efforts, Rell is proposing a Public Involvement Plan which will include informational meetings, an archive for all documents associated with the project, and support for the Newhall Advisory Committee — a group of stakeholders in the project who will advise the DEP about cleanup options.

“Community involvement is a major component of this project and DEP has been taking the lead on it,” Rell said in a press release. “The DEP has been working closely with the community and all other parties involved at each step of the process. These new state funds will make certain this approach continues.”

In addition to health and property concerns, the coalition is also working towards keeping the middle school in the area, despite Hamden Mayor Carl Amento’s efforts to relocate the school.

Jackie Downing, an administrative officer for the Hamden Mayor’s Office, said the health of area school children is of particular concern to the town. Downing said construction of a new middle school in Meadowbrook is under way so children can be moved away from the landfill. The construction is expected to be complete by September 2006, she said.

“Once the students are transferred to the new location, then the town can begin remediation of the old school property,” Downing said.

Hayes said she would like to see a more permanent solution so that the school can remain in the area.

“People don’t move here for community centers, they move here because of the schools,” Hayes said. “Keep the school here. It can be done.”

Hayes said the coalition is proposing to contain the waste and build a new middle school near the site of the original school, but that the project is inhibited by the cost of containment.

Downing said the town will wait until the DEP report next spring before they begin any remediation plans for residential homes.

The coalition has filed a lawsuit against the companies held responsible in the 2002 report. Hayes said the coalition has also begun researching where the waste can be deposited if removed and continued to advocate keeping the school in the area. She said it has been difficult to rally support for the coalition outside of the affected area because many of these residents suffer from “benign denial” — they do not want to research the extent of the damage because it would lower their property value.

But in the meantime, Donnah Johnson, who has lived on Winchester Avenue for 12 years, said she is more concerned with what the town will do about residents in the future.

“If you can fix it, then do it instead of wasting tax dollars moving the schools,” Johnson said. “Think about the people who are here 24 hours a day.”

Johnson said she has noticed severe structural damage to her home.

“There are visible cracks in the foundation and it is sinking,” Johnson said. “When you walk up the steps, you can see how the ground looks different.”

She also mentioned that the floors are uneven and certain windows will not open because the weight has shifted.

Her next door neighbor, Dorothy Williams, has had similar problems with her home since she moved in 1970. Williams said the floor shakes whenever a bus drives past and her basement is slanting more every year. The town has run tests since 2000, but has not proposed anything to fix the home yet, Williams said.

In the meantime, Johnson said she remains skeptical of what will be done next.

“It’s like a waiting game for everyone now,” Johnson said. “Everyone’s pointing fingers at who’s responsible for what.”

The home of Dorothy Williams, a Hamden resident, shows structural damage that may be linked to the discovery of an underground toxic landfill.
Neil Katsuyama
The home of Dorothy Williams, a Hamden resident, shows structural damage that may be linked to the discovery of an underground toxic landfill.

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