Residents concerned over Superfund site

Federal agency seeks input on Commerce Street Plume

By Kim Howard
Observer correspondent

Representatives of a federal agency met individually with Williston residents last week who wanted to discuss the Commerce Street Plume, which in April was added to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) national priorities list for cleanup.

State officials emphasized there is no reason for alarm over the hazardous contamination site just west of Taft Corners, but Williston residents and business owners have mixed concerns about health and property values.

Approximately 30 people attended last Wednesday’s meetings with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, according to Steve Richardson, one of the agency’s environmental health scientists.

“There weren’t widespread concerns,” Richardson said by phone two days after the meetings, which were designed to gather community health concerns. “It was more [that] people were interested in what we were doing and what was going on at the site because they hadn’t heard about it in a while,” he said.

From 1960 to 1984, liquid waste containing heavy metals and solvents was disposed of sporadically into an unlined lagoon and a leach field at 96 Commerce St., just south of U.S. 2, according to the EPA Web site.

Mitec Systems Corp. discharged hazardous waste from electronic and microwave components manufactured on the site, which they leased from 1979 to 1986. A Mitec employee expressed concern about the practice to the Vermont Agency of Environmental Conservation in 1982. Thereafter the state found the company responsible for violating hazardous waste regulations.

As recently as 2002, investigations found elevated levels of thirteen metals and eleven volatile organic compounds, including trichloroethylene (TCE). Elevated levels of TCE consumed in drinking water over many years can cause liver problems or increase the risk of cancer, according to the EPA.

Richardson said that although some people were “kind of alarmed by the stuff that they read in the paper,” only a few who attended last week’s meetings discussed adverse health conditions they felt could be related to the site.

The Plouffes, who have lived on South Brownell Road just west of the site since 1958, were among those who met with the agency.

Louise Plouffe said she is not sure if the breast cancer she had twenty years ago – or other instances of cancer in her neighborhood – are related to the contaminated site.

“Nobody can really know for sure,” said her husband, Marcel Plouffe. “That’s the problem with something like this.”

At least four South Brownell Road houses used water wells until state officials detected concentrations of chemicals and solvents beyond drinking water safety standards in 1984. In 1985 those residences began using the town water system.

Neysa Peterson, who moved into her home in Lamplite Acres in 1972, met with the federal agency representatives last week, as she was not sure when her property moved from well water to town water.

“Geographically we’re quite close” to the contaminated site, Peterson said. “We’re on sand and we were living here at the time so I thought it was important to get information to see if we were exposed to any risk and if it was related to my husband’s health issues,” she said. Her husband suffers from dementia.

“When he was diagnosed, they could find no familial component … and asked questions about exposure to metals, heavy metals, chemicals in his history,” she said, explaining her curiosity about the meetings.

As long as people are not drilling wells, they need not fear for their health, said Michael B. Smith, a hydrogeologist in the Waste Management Division of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.

“We really want to stress that people are not at risk,” Smith said. “They can walk around. They can grow vegetables in their soil.” He indicated the contamination starts twenty or more feet underground, and that at this time it appears unlikely it will migrate. It would be difficult for someone to be exposed to the chemicals unless they put in a well, he said.

Still, the contaminated area needs to be cleaned.

“Ground water – by state law– is defined as suitable for water supply,” Smith said. “We’re mandated by statute to keep it clean.”

Though Mitec conducted extensive testing of the site in 1999, the State of Vermont and Mitec could not come to an agreement about the company’s role in cleaning up the contamination. The state brought it to the attention of the federal Environmental Protection Agency for further action.

After its own studies, the EPA concluded the Commerce Street Plume should be designated a “Superfund” site, which enables public funds to be used for toxic waste site cleanup when private monies are not available. The federal government then seeks reimbursement from the parties they find responsible for the contamination.

“Superfund is all about managing exposure to risk,” said Karen Lumino, a geologist and remedial project manager with the EPA.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry “will help us evaluate what the risks at the site are,” Lumino explained, referring to both human health and ecological risks. “If there is risk that is outside an acceptable risk range, we take action. If there isn’t, we don’t,” she said.

Environmental health specialist Steve Richardson anticipates that a document outlining his agency’s recommendations will be available for public comment in the spring. The agency will provide copies to the public, at locations yet to be determined.

Richardson said they may send out notices to residents when the report is available for feedback. He apologized that many people – including all eight residents interviewed for this article – appeared to not have received one of the 900 notices Richardson said the agency sent to announce last week’s meetings.

“Normally everyone knows well in advance of the meetings,” Richardson said. “We felt bad that people either didn’t receive the flyer or [felt] that we weren’t trying to reach them, and that was not our intention at all.” Richardson acknowledged that many staff members have been deployed to assist in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, leaving the agency understaffed.

Kirby Lane resident Monica Dattilio attended last week’s meetings, but has no health concerns in spite of the fact that her house is on the residential street closest to the site.

“Who knows how long it’s going to take them to get the clean up accomplished?” said Dattilio, who knew about the contamination prior to purchasing her house a little over two years ago. “We do have concerns about property value. It’s not a great concern, but it is there.”

Rick Harrison, commercial real estate broker with J.L. Davis Realty, said they have had no trouble selling or leasing industrial and commercial property on Commerce Street. In the last two years they have sold two industrial buildings, one directly across the street from the former Mitec property.

“Because those properties are all on municipal water and sewer, the buyer had no problem getting financing to purchase the site,” Harrison said.

Several Kirby Lane residents said that occasional media attention is the only potential detriment to property value, otherwise it isn’t a concern.

“We have all kinds of wild animals; we have all kinds of gorgeous trees; we’re not glowing,” said Michele Commo, who has lived on Kirby Lane for twenty years.

“If anybody questions it, we have air quality reports from the state,” Commo continued. “None of my friends have air quality reports on their houses.”

“The planes bother me much more than the water issue,” Commo said, referring to airplane flight paths. “That’s an issue I want to talk about.”

To Share Concerns

Residents with concerns about possible exposure to contamination at the Commerce Street Plume site – just west of Taft Corners and south of U.S. 2 – are encouraged to contact the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to share their concerns.

Phone: (888) 422-8737 (toll free) – Steve Richardson or Debra Joseph


Mail: ATSDR/HPCIP, Debra Joseph

1600 Clifton Road Mailstop E-32

Atlanta, GA 30333