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Chemung County's Legislature Can Help Address Contamination Issue On Elmira's Southside

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Christina Bruner-Sonsire

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Most people connected to Chemung County are aware there is a serious contamination issue on the grounds of Elmira High School and potentially in the school’s surrounding neighborhoods as well. First identified more than 25 years ago, the problem remains largely unmitigated, placing scores of students, teachers, staff, residents and community members at risk for exposure to hazardous chemicals.

Industrial Background

Jim Hare, Elmira’s former mayor and a local historian, recently published an article in the Star Gazetteabout the industrial background of Elmira High School’s property on South Main Street, an area sits in what is now a largely residential area.

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The Preliminary Site Assessment for the Remington Rand Plant site prepared by the Unisys Corporation, the company which has liability for the property, prepared in July 1988, provides in interesting history of the site on South Main St. The property purchased by the Elmira City School District for the new high school had been an industrial site since 1882 when 20 acres of land were donated by John Arnot to encourage business development in Elmira.  The Payne Engine and Boiler works was the first business to locate there.  From 1909-1935 the Morrow Company and the Willys-Morrow Company occupied the site.  From 1935-37 the Elmira Precision Tool Company was there to be replaced by the Remington Rand which lasted until 1972.  In 1977, the Elmira City School District took possession of the northern part of the property.

While there were questions and comments on the street about the site and its history,  in all of the public discussion about building a new school on a site which had been used by industry for nearly 100 years, the risk  of hazardous waste and pollution which might jeopardize students and faculty was never raised as an issue.  Indeed there was no discussion about the exposure to such waste by neighbors of  the property.

In 1952, the State Department of Health informed the Remington Rand that toxic wastes were being discharged to the Chemung River.  In January 1954, a large fish kill resulting from cyanide contamination on the river resulting from nickel plating at the plant was noted.  Further contamination was noted in 1958.  In 1965, Sperry Rand Corporation was notified that elevated concentration of zinc and cyanide were noted in Miller Creek (flows into Miller’s Pond).  By 1967 Sperry Rand had failed to meet abatement schedules to treat contamination problems.

The 1988 Preliminary Site Assessment, referenced by Hare above, provides an incredibly detailed overview of the area’s history. It also includes a table describing the waste produced by Remington Rand in 1967, just ten years before the Elmira City School District purchased the property.

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Public Outcry

To the best of my knowledge, concerns about the environmental safety at Elmira High School (formerly Southside High School) were first raised in the late 1990’s by a group of parents and students over what appeared to be an unusually high number of serious illnesses, including cancers, in young people who attended the school.

Indeed, an article published in the New York Times on on December 27, 2000, entitled “Specter of Cancer Haunts a School; Industrial City of Elmira Confronts Environmental Legacy” detailed the concerns that were raised at that time.

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Years ago they drew little notice, the pond that never freezes, the rainbow of colors glinting off the surface of a creek, the hard-to-pronounce chemicals sprayed, painted and, yes, sometimes spilled around the mile-long stretch of factories on the south side of town.
 

This small Southern Tier city, which promotes itself as the gateway to the Finger Lakes and the place where Mark Twain wrote classics like ”The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” owes much of its existence to the less glamorous might of industry, which in the last century turned out cars, tools, typewriters, warplane components, fire hydrants and much more.

But as Elmira strives to rebound from years of hard times after the decline of manufacturing, residents have begun to question the legacy of all those factories as never before.

They are especially concerned by suggestions that a number of cancer cases reported by former and current students of a high school here are linked to the school, which was built on land that has supported a diverse array of industry from the Civil War to the 1970’s.

The State Health and Environmental Conservation Departments have conducted tests at Southside High School and a neighboring property that is the site of an abandoned plant.

Interestingly, Hare’s recent article included a quote from Dr. Paul Zaccarine, Elmira City School District’s Superintendent at the time the high school property was purchased from Remington Rand, who stated in 1976 that “the positive aspect of having that building put up there does outweigh the negative aspect of using that particular area as an industrial site.”

However, when he was interviewed in 2000 by the USA Today, Dr. Zaccrine had a much different outlook.

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”I wish I could undo it,” says Paul Zaccarine, 71, the school superintendent who oversaw the school’s construction in the late 1970s. Now retired and living in Illinois, he is watching in horror as student after student gets cancer.

”It’s really frightening,” he says. ”That site was the least desirable as far as I was concerned, but because the Remington Rand people had given us the land, the board voted to go ahead and take it. We got it for a dollar or something.”

He says the long-term effects of the industrial waste were never considered. So far, nobody has found any evidence that an environmental study was done before school construction began in 1977.

”We just didn’t know enough about all of that to have it be a concern,” Zaccarine says. ”Every way we looked at it, we just felt it was an opportunity to get a brand-new school with a lot of the facilities we needed. If we had any indication that there was any contamination, we certainly would not have gone ahead with it.”

An (Unfulfilled) Promise to Clean Up

As a result of the push by community members, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) began taking soil samples from the high school’s grounds in 2000, a process that continues today, and has taken some steps to protect people who enter the property from coming into contact with what it concedes are toxic subsurface contaminants and vapors.

In 2014, Unisys, company that owns the property and is the responsible for paying all clean-up costs, began investigating the site itself.  Based on what it found, Unisys chose to enter New York State’s Brownfield Cleanup Program. Last summer Unisys worked with the DEC and New York’s Department of Health to remove below ground PCB contaminated soils.

However, the work is nowhere near completion. According members of the DEC at a public forum I attended last month, Unisys plans to remove 28,000 tons of contaminated soil from Elmira High School this summer, as outlined in the DEC’s powerpoint slides. This project will require the use of 35-40 trucks per day/6 days a week starting the day after school ends and finishing just before it resumes again next year. Workers will wear fully protective clothing, the trucks will be sprayed down each time they leave the premises, and the materials will be hauled to a hazardous waste dump.

Of greater concern is the amount of work that will remain uncompleted at the end of the summer. The Brownsfield Clean-Up Program is notoriously slow, and it allows liable parties such as Unisys to delay remediation – i.e. paying for it – for years as the process drags on. The Brownsfield Program also allows companies engaged in remediation to receive tax credits each year, lessening the incentives liable businesses have to complete their work as soon as possible.

Specifically, at last month’s public forum DEC officials stated the investigation into the extent of contamination at the school – a process that started almost two decades ago – will take at least 2 more years to complete, and Unisys will need an indefinite amount of time to mitigate the areas they acknowledge need to be addressed, as shown below.

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What about the Residents?

Unfortunately, the contamination problem at Elmira High School is not likely limited to the school’s grounds. Although to date there has not been a large-scale inspection of the surrounding community, some evidence has begun to emerge that raises serious concerns.

Specifically, John and Joann Siedman, residents of Raecrest Circle in Elmira, recently received a letter from Geosyntec Consultants, a company that is working with Unisys to assess the scope of contamination.

The letter states that environmental samples from the Siedman’s property show toxic contamination, and warns them to take precautions on their property including “washing your hands, avoiding incidental ingestion of of soil during play, cleaning any soil covered tools and minimizing digging or relocating soil in areas where routine flooding occurs…(and keeping) livestock/pets from these areas as well.” Incredibly, neither Geosyntec, Unisys, NYDEC nor any other entity alterted the Siedman’s neighbors about their findings.

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Potential Legislative Actions

This issue highlights why our community desperately needs a strong legislative body.

The grounds of Elmira City School District’s only high school are admittedly contaminated, and many of its residential properties may be as well. As such, a full, immediate clean-up must be a top priority for all elected officials in our county, and the legislature can do a lot to put things in motion.

There are three ways the Chemung County Legislature could make an immediate impact on this issue:

Pass a Strong Resolution

The goal for our community should be an immediate completion of the DEC’s investigation, followed by and/or in conjunction with a full remediation by Unisys. Continuing to implement “interim remedial measures”, i.e. piecemeal clean-up acts that could span a decade or more,  is simply not the answer.

The legislature introduced a resolution last month, but tabled it after members of the community – including myself – stressed during public comment period that it doesn’t go far enough. Last night the resolution passed unanimously.

Specifically, the resolution reads as follows:

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The language of this resolution should be contrasted with a letter signed by nearly 1,100 people affected by this issue – including several sitting Chemung County legislators – that urges New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to go much further. Indeed, the letter asks Cuomo to take the remediation effort out of the Brownsfield Clean-Up program altogether and instead pursue a far more proactive approach.

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We, the undersigned, write respectfully to request that you immediately require all of the toxic site concerns associated with the former Sperry Remington manufacturing site in Elmira, NY to be consolidated into a single site that is given a Class 1 Inactive Hazardous Waste Disposal Site designation: “Causing or presenting an imminent danger of causing irreversible or irreparable damage to the public health or the environment — immediate action required.”

This action is warranted because it has been more than 20 years since high-level toxic pollution was discovered to have migrated nearly 1,000 feet from the former Sperry Remington factory site to Miller Pond in Elmira, NY. Yet, the full scope of that contaminated property’s public health and environmental hazards has neither been fully investigated and delineated nor cleaned up in strict compliance with all applicable regulatory requirements.

The delay in achieving comprehensive clean up in strict compliance with all applicable regulatory requirements is unacceptable given that Elmira High School at 777 South Main Street is built directly on the contaminated site and a responsible party is required to clean it up. In addition, a residential neighborhood adjoining the former factory site has yet to be investigated for toxic pollution threats.

Continued participation in the Brownsfield Clean-Up Program is too slow, and far too much is at stake to allow further delays. Whether the approach outlined in the letter is the most appropriate response remains an open question, requiring the sitting legislators to dig deep in order to figure out what our community needs. What we all should be able to agree upon is that waiting two more years for the investigation alone to be to completed is an absolutely unacceptable way to go.

Conduct an Investigation

As I described in a prior blog post, Chemung County’s charter is riddled with untapped potential as it relates to the legislature.

Specifically, the charter provides that the legislature has the power to:

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[M]ake such studies and investigations as it deems to be in the best interests of the County and in connection therewith to obtain and
employ professional and technical advice, appoint temporary advisory boards of citizens, subpoena witnesses, administer oaths, and require the production of books, papers and other evidence deemed necessary or material to such study or inquiry.

What does this mean in terms of the contamination situation? It means the legislature has the power to take the lead in protecting our community. It can hire experts to conduct testing, appoint a commission of local citizens with specialized knowledge in this field, place members of NYDEC and Unisys under subpoena and have them testify under oath at a hearing, and/or demand NYDEC and Unisys produce documents and records that will help our community begin to understand what is happening and how big this problem really is.

This approach is very similar to what is happening at the federal level with respect to injuries and deaths related to Takata airbag inflators. U.S. senators have stated they are undertaking the investigation and hearings to examine the “current manufacturer recall completion rates, the Takata bankruptcy and transition to new ownership under Key Safety Systems, and what all stakeholders including NHTSA are doing to ensure this process continues to move forward.”

That is exactly what the sitting legislators can and should do here. A local entity needs to take the lead in this matter, and the legislature has the requisite power to do it.

Create a true Council of Governments

This issue highlights the need we have for a Council of Governments (COG), with representatives from all levels of local government including the county, towns and villages, the school districts, the sewer district, various public safety and public works entities and others.

If we had a COG in place right now, it would be the logical place to take a massive issue like this, as the contamination problem overlaps many different governmental bodies. Unfortunately, Chemung County’s COG disbanded many years ago, and recent calls for a “quasi-COG” are so riddled political posturing that its hard to imagine it getting off the ground anytime soon.

The legislature should act now to create a true COG that is unentangled by unnecessary components I have described in prior blog posts here and here. The legislators to do need to wait for approval from the Executive’s office. To the contrary, they can – and should – act now.

There has never been a greater need for genuine cooperation than there is at this moment. Chemung County is facing a very serious problem. We need a legislature that is ready and willing to face it head on.

 

Christina Bruner-Sonsire is a local attorney and candidate for Chemung County Legislature

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