Greenwich may have the option of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up toxic soil from its high school campus, but several environmental and health experts say the town doesn't have to go that far to make sure students' health is not at risk.
A consultant hired by the town earlier this month recommended a clean-up plan for the school that would leave some soil contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls buried below the surface of Greenwich High School's athletic fields. That plan, which would cost close to $20 million over two summers, has workers digging up contaminated dirt at varying depths, ranging from 1 foot to 3 feet down, and adding a layer of clean fill. The most extensive option put forward by Rocky Hill-based AECOM -- excavating as deep as 13 feet over 17 acres and replacing it all with clean soil -- is expected to cost nearly $180 million.
"It's the perfect storm of contamination and sensitive site uses," admits David Hazebrouck, an environmental consultant for 27 and owner of Cumberland, R.I.-based Lake Shore Environmental which deals with soil and groundwater contamination.
Hazebrouck, one of several environmental and health professionals who looked at AECOM's report on remediation options for the Hillside Road property, along with other studies on the impact of the contamination on human health and the environment, said despite the fact that there is a lot of high-impact activity on school athletic fields, the clean-up option being recommended by AECOM "seems like a reasonable approach."
"A one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work," says Hazebrouck, who is licensed to work in Connecticut. "Spending an extra $100 million to dig out every bit of soil that exceeds a residential criteria doesn't get you any decrease in risk if capping what's there precludes any exposure to contaminated soil."
Hazebrouck also notes that there would be continual monitoring of groundwater, and institutional controls to ensure there's no future digging on the property. The federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection have also been involved since the contamination was first discovered during excavation work back in 2011, and would have to approve any remediation plan.
"It sounds like the steps that they want through were appropriate, and I think that residents should find some comfort in the fact that the EPA and DEEP has been involved in this," Hazebrouck says. "If they don't think anything is protected, they wont allow it. The school (district) has just as much to lose as the residents."
To understand the clean-up options and health risks, it makes sense to understand PCBs, synthetic chemical mixtures known for their chemical stability, high boiling point and insulating properties. Since the early 20th century, they have been found in hundreds of products, from transformers to oil-based paints. Manufacture of PCBs was banned in 1979.
The good news, experts say, is that because PCBs are so stable, they don't easily break down and enter the air, and they generally stay put and don't spread to other areas.
The EPA classifies PCBs as a probable human carcinogen, because they are known to cause cancer in animals, but there is inconclusive evidence that PCBs cause cancer in humans. Long-term exposure to PCBs has also been linked to damage to the liver and immune systems.
AECOM performed an assessment of the health risk posed to people using the fields, and determined that because there are limited ways for students to come in contact with the contaminated soil below the surface, they had less than a 1-in-100,000 risk of developing cancer over the course of their lives.
Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician and director of the Children's Environmental Health Center at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, said that though PCBs are considered a potential carcinogen, he doesn't think cancer is the real hazard.
Landrigan, who focuses on environmental health threats to children, said his main concern would be for pregnant women exposed to the chemical. "There's very strong evidence that prenatal exposure causes loss of IQ in children and behavior issues," Landrigan said. "Usually, the root of exposure is pregnant woman eating contaminated fish. I think any option that protects pregnant women like teachers and parents bringing children to the school, is the option you have to consider."
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