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
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Residents whose water carried more than five parts per billion TCE had their homes outfitted with carbon filtration systems
She could not talk about anything, could not think about anything, other than her air and water. “Sometimes I’d talk about it with my husband, and he’d be like, ‘Enough already, I don’t want to talk about it anymore!’ ” Hall says with a nervous chuckle.
The EPA insisted it would install air filters in the residents’ basements as soon as possible. Meanwhile, Hall spent as much as nine hours a day on e-mails, phone calls, and research. At this point, Hall had also requested that the DEC send her documents related to the claim that Hopewell Precision had dumped TCE. The documents revealed that, months before the DEC dropped its investigation into the company, the state Department of Health had raised objections about the DEC’s testing methods at the site: The wells checked for TCE were much deeper than the groundwater where the chemicals were later found. The DEC, for some reason, had ignored the warnings of the DOH. The reports that Hopewell Precision had dumped TCE could well be true.
Hall was furious. The government knew, she thought. With great fervor, she petitioned the EPA to hold Hopewell Precision responsible. In April 2004, the agency declared that, based on its investigation, Hopewell Precision was a “potentially responsible party” in the pollution of Hopewell Junction. Legal issues would need to be resolved, however, before the agency could force the company to pay for cleanup costs.
That summer, a contractor installed the filters in residents’ basements. The machine, called a sub-slab depressurization system, sucks the contaminated air from the space beneath each house. A fan then blows it through an exhaust pipe system into the air above the house, where it dissipates. The filters were somewhat of a nuisance: The fans were noisy, and their installation meant an EPA technician would need to visit every three months to ensure the machine worked properly. The residents were relieved to be breathing clean air, however. The anger some of them had felt seemed to dissolve, despite the lack of any clear-cut plans as to how to permanently remove the contamination. “People get bored or tired and they figure, ‘Eh, it’s getting taken care of,’ ” Hall says. Many of the residents wished they could do more, but simply could not find time. “For me to do what Debra did, it would be really hard, with kids and working all the time,” says Sarah Knickerbocker, a Creamery Road resident. Nancy Foster adds: “I helped as much as I could, but I really didn’t have as much time or energy as Debra. It really became a full-time job with her.”
Hall, however, did not relent. She continued writing letters. Whenever the EPA held a community meeting, she would drive around the neighborhood, distributing fliers (printed with her own money) that urged residents to attend. “I’d make up a flier on a colored piece of paper, and in as few words as possible I’d write, ‘Important meeting — you must be there!’ ” Whenever a new development occurred, Hall would call Shapley at the Journal, or Shapley would call her. “There were people in the neighborhood who didn’t feel comfortable talking publicly, but would talk to her, and she would then share their concerns,” Shapley says. “She was the person I would turn to first — and often the only person I would turn to — to find out what was going on in the neighborhood and what people were talking about. She really did emerge as the unofficial spokesperson for people living there.” Hall also remained in constant contact with Kelly in Washington. “I had one staffer who, for a long time, the largest part of what he was doing was tracking these things down for Debra,” Kelly says.
In late September 2004, a year and a half after she had learned that her home was contaminated, Hall received another phone call. It was Kelly. The Hopewell Precision site was nominated for inclusion on the federal Superfund list. Hall gasped. At that moment, for the first time, she felt something approaching fulfillment, a sense that her circumstances may finally have changed for the better.
If a movie adaptation of Debra Hall’s exploits was ever to be produced, this would be the coda, the scene just before the credits roll. Having saved the day, the Hall character would flip back her hair, slide onto the back of a motorcycle, and ride off into the sunset, ready for the next adventure.
That, of course, is not what happened.
Today, six and a half years after it was discovered, the contamination affects the lives of the Hopewell Junction residents even still. They still need air and water filters to keep them safe from the chemicals lurking beneath their homes. They still need to attend meetings with EPA officials. Their property is practically worthless: Who in their right mind would fork over a small fortune to inherit this?
For the unlucky ones, the health problems associated with TCE exposure persist, and may never stop. The state Department of Health has conducted a health statistics review of the neighborhood, but it has yet to publish the results. Until that report is released, it’s difficult to quantify exactly to what degree the TCE has ruined residents’ health.
Matt Kover, Hall’s 19-year-old next-door neighbor, isn’t waiting for a report to be published. Last year, he and his family decided that he would speak about his developmental disabilities, which they believe are caused by TCE, at the public meetings. “There are things I can and cannot do,” Kover says. “I can’t drive a car. I can’t tie my shoes or anything. And the last thing I say is that there can be no other kids like me. I say that at every meeting, and I will keep saying that at every meeting.”
In August, the EPA held a meeting in Hopewell Junction to address the future of the cleanup effort. By December, officials said, they hope to decide on a nearby public water supply from which the affected neighborhood can draw uncontaminated water. In the past, however, the agency has had difficulty finding such a water source. Even assuming such a decision could be finalized by year’s end, it would take at least a year and a half to design and install the necessary infrastructure. And what about the toxic waste beneath the residents’ homes? Securing a permanent water supply would do nothing to address that. In order to eliminate the contaminants once and for all, the EPA would need to perform aerobic co-metabolic remediation, a complex biological procedure. The process, officials say, would take 20 to 30 years to complete.
Where the money will come to fund all of this, of course, remains an issue. Building a new piping system and decontaminating the groundwater will cost the federal government a minimum of $30 million. The EPA and Hopewell Precision are still fighting over legal issues, so the company, at least for the moment, cannot be held liable for any costs. Those hoping the Obama administration would restore Superfund financing to pre-1995 levels have thus far been disappointed: In 2009, the EPA will begin the final phase of cleanup on the fewest Superfund sites since 1991.
While continuing to tackle obstacles in her own neighborhood, Hall has taken her campaign for stricter TCE regulations beyond Hopewell Junction. In an effort to prevent another, similar disaster from happening, she petitioned the Dutchess County government to pass a well-testing law. The proposal mandated TCE well testing for county residents looking to sell their homes. (According to the Dutchess County Department of Health, there are about 30,000 private wells in the county.) The legislature passed the bill, but in February 2007, County Executive William Steinhaus vetoed it. Later that year, Steinhaus implemented an alternative program that called for randomly selected wells throughout the county to be tested on a regular basis. Hall, unsatisfied with the measure, hopes the legislature’s bill will someday pass, although she’s happy that the towns of Fishkill and East Fishkill and the village of Wappingers Falls have adopted their own versions of the legislature bill. “Every time I get a little bit further, it feels good to know that I helped somebody,” she says.
In January 2008, Hall helped found the New York State Vapor Intrusion Alliance, a collection of activists from vapor intrusion-affected sites across New York. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the group nominated Hall to be its co-chairperson.) During its short existence, the alliance has petitioned the state government to adopt tougher vapor intrusion guidelines, making occasional trips to Albany to lobby representatives. Thus far, their greatest success has been a measure, signed into law by Governor Paterson last year, requiring landlords to notify potential tenants if vapor intrusion is present in their property. Prior to this law, there was no such requirement.