A Resident Outraged
One afternoon six years ago, Debra Hall learned the water in her Hopewell Junction home was toxic. The quest she has embarked on since that day has transformed her and her entire neighborhood
Photographs by Michael Polito
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Debra Hall’s two-floor, raised-ranch home is tucked into a quiet residential stretch of Hopewell Junction, a suburban hamlet of about 2,800 people in the town of East Fishkill, but it could easily be in any of a hundred identical communities in the Hudson Valley. The front lawns of Creamery Road, the tree-lined street on which Hall and her husband David live, are scattered with the hula hoops, basketballs, and other debris that clutter a neighborhood full of children. David has two sons from a previous marriage who stay with him every other weekend. He and Debra married in 1998, and moved from Patterson to their current home in Hopewell in 2001. Both David, 42, and Debra, 48, grew up in more crowded environs — he on Long Island, she in Queens (her “New Yawk” accent still rings true) — so the couple relishes Creamery Road’s quiet nights and expansive space. They bought the house with the intention of growing old together in its bucolic embrace.
While David commutes to and from the city every day for his job as an electrician, Debra spends most of her time alone at home. In 1996, she suffered a debilitating back injury while working. (At the time, she too was employed as an electrician.) Since then, she has been unable to work. Some days, the pain is so excruciating Hall can barely move around the house. She has visited 14 doctors and undergone three surgeries to implant spinal cord stimulators, but still needs to use a cane. “Every day I wake up and just have to hope for the best,” Hall says. For the first few years she lived on Creamery Road, she passed the time by cross-stitching, reading, and watching television. “I didn’t even know my neighbors,” she says. “I would wave to them, and that would be it. I hadn’t learned a name or anything.”
One evening in the spring of 2003, while the couple was relaxing at home, David spotted a small item in the Poughkeepsie Journal and called Debra over to read it. The article said that the Environmental Protection Agency had tested the well water in several homes in Hopewell Junction for a hazardous industrial chemical called trichloroethylene, or TCE. The results indicated that the water in five of the homes — located only a few blocks from the Halls’ residence — was dangerously polluted. Those poor people, Debra thought.
A month later, Debra read another article in the Journal that said the water in four more nearby homes carried high levels of TCE. She began to feel anxious, so she called the EPA. An official there told her not to worry — if the agency felt her home needed to be tested, it would send someone immediately. A week later, Hall found a flyer in her front door: Her well water would be tested later that week. Within a few days, a contractor arrived to take a water sample. The results would take several weeks to process, he said. She couldn’t believe it. Everything was happening so quickly.
Three weeks after the contractor’s visit, the phone rang. It was May 24, about 5 p.m. Hall still remembers the conversation.
“I’m sorry to tell you this,” the EPA official on the line said, “but your water is contaminated.”
“What do you mean?” Hall asked. “How contaminated?”
“Well, it has 76 parts per billion TCE.”
“What? How bad is that?”
“Well, anyone who has over five parts per billion TCE will be getting bottled water brought to their house — as much as they want,” he said. “We’re going to do that in the next day or two. In the meantime, don’t drink the water. Don’t cook with the water. Don’t wash your vegetables with the water. Take very fast showers, and when you do, make sure the bathroom window is open for ventilation.”
Hall started crying. “David!” she screamed. “Get on the extension!” She asked the man if someone from the agency could at least come to her home and install some sort of filter.
“Well, we’re not doing that yet,” the man said. “We’re going to test all the homes that we feel we need to test, and then we’ll make a decision on what to do.”
It didn’t make sense. Her water tasted fine. Her neighborhood was gorgeous. Homes had been bought and sold since she had moved there; if there was a problem with the water, wouldn’t someone have found out before now? Yet the reality she confronted insisted otherwise: The water she drank everyday could hurt her — had, in fact, been hurting her for years. And it would remain that way, apparently, until the EPA decided to do something about it. I don’t want to wait that long, Hall thought. I don’t want to take cold showers in the middle of winter with my window open.
She needed to do something. What that something might be, she had no idea.
After the phone conversation ended, Hall stumbled onto her front lawn and stood, frozen, in a disbelieving stupor. I wonder who else got a phone call, she thought.
As if on cue, a neighbor, Nancy Foster, walked across the street and told Hall that the EPA had called her as well; while traces of TCE had been found in her water, the agency didn’t consider the contamination significant enough to warrant any action on its part to address it. Nevertheless, the official gave her similar advice to that which Hall had received: “As an aside, if I were you, I would boil my water and take short showers,” Foster remembers him saying. Intended as a friendly, off-the-cuff piece of advice, the recommendation puzzled the neighbors. If an EPA official believed the water to be unsafe unless boiled, why would the agency refuse to supply Foster with the bottled water it had offered Hall?
Talking to Foster, Hall remembered a conversation she had struck up three weeks earlier with a stranger whose landscaping she admired. The man owned a water treatment company that was installing filters in homes near the Shenandoah Road Superfund site, an IBM-owned property in East Fishkill whose immense pollution had poisoned the well water of adjacent residential areas. Shenandoah Road sounded a lot like her own neighborhood, Hall thought. She called the water treatment company owner, who within minutes put her in touch with a Shenandoah resident named Denis Callinan. By chance, a group of the Shenandoah residents was meeting that night at the Holiday Inn in Fishkill. Callinan invited her to come, and to bring along any neighbors interested in attending.
The meeting was set to start in a few hours, so there wasn’t much time. Hall grabbed a pen and some paper. Along with Foster, she began patrolling the neighborhood, shuffling steadily from house to house on her cane. If a neighbor was out in the yard, she told them about the meeting directly. If no one seemed to be home, she left a note on the front door. If the front door looked like it wasn’t used much, she taped a note to the garage. “I was just reaching out everywhere I could,” Hall says.
Hall and Foster rounded up 17 TCE-affected residents to caravan to the Holiday Inn. The Hopewell Junction neighbors could not sit in on the meeting, it turned out, because the Shenandoah group was holding a private strategy session with an attorney. But before the Hopewell group left, the Shenandoah Road residents — miles down a nightmarish path on which Hall and her neighbors just now found themselves — offered them a few pieces of advice. “You’re going to have to get everybody organized,” they told them. “You’re going to have to map houses, you’re going to have to write down what everybody’s results were, learn about the chemicals, make a Web site...”
Hall felt overwhelmed. I have a bad back. I can’t do this. She had never cared about politics, never paid attention to any environmental movement. “I still couldn’t even pronounce trichloroethylene,” Hall says. “I would look at it and go, ‘Tri-chlor-o...o...uh...’ ” But the compulsion to understand — understand what had invaded her body and home; how it had gotten there; and what could be done about it — flooded her thoughts. At the very least, she thought, she could do some research.