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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The EPA ordered contractors to install sub-slab depressurization systems in those homes affected by vapor intrusion. Hall can use this gauge, located in the laundry room in her basement, to determine whether the filter is operating correctly
Meanwhile, back in Hopewell Junction, Hall’s fellow residents have reclaimed at least this much for themselves: The water they drink and the air they breathe is no longer robbing them of their health. Of that, if nothing else, they can be all but certain. Even Foster and some of the other residents with TCE levels under five parts per billion have had filters installed.
For all of that, the neighborhood can thank Debra Hall. “People up there should appreciate how much time that woman devoted to getting the EPA in there,” Kelly says. “She’s fought hard — for them.” Hall’s neighbors are grateful for the commitment she has made to better their community. “The neighborhood really owes a lot to her,” says Borell, who moved to Wappingers Falls in 2007. “If you don’t have an advocate for you, it’s really a shame,” Knickerbocker adds.
Foster has nicknamed Hall “the Erin Brockovich of Creamery Road.” Her neighbor’s dedication and persistence astonish her. “It’s an enormous amount of energy for what can sometimes be very little results,” Foster says.
Hall sits onstage, gazing out coolly at the 300-plus scientists and high-level EPA administrators assembled before her. She is about to speak at a conference the EPA held earlier this year on vapor intrusion, hosted by a ritzy hotel in downtown Philadelphia. As the previous speaker sits down to polite applause, Hall rises and walks haltingly to the podium. She takes a quick sip of bottled water. “In 2005, Hopewell Junction was voted one of the best towns to live in by Money magazine,” she begins. She pauses a beat. “But they didn’t ask me.”
Over the length of the speech, Hall alternates between seasoned activist and angry homeowner. One minute she breaks down complex statistics to audience members who use them every day, and the next she raises her voice and admonishes the government for not adopting stricter intrusion limits. She ends on a supplicatory note. “Just try to put yourself in our place when you talk to people,” she says. “Because it’s very, very upsetting to know you have contaminated air.”
A week after the conference, Hall sits at her kitchen table, reflecting on what she still hopes to accomplish. She wants to find a way to hold Hopewell Precision responsible for some of the cleanup costs. She would like to nail down a viable permanent source of water for the neighborhood. But she doesn’t have as much time as she used to. Her mother, who still lives in Queens, recently underwent back surgery. For the past few months, she has stayed at her daughter’s house in Hopewell Junction; Hall drives her to doctor’s appointments and physical therapy sessions nearby.
Hall takes out a photograph. Taken during the first meeting with Kelly, it shows the congresswoman — who lost her seat in 2006 — posing with a small group of the Hopewell Junction residents. “I keep in touch with most of these people still, but a lot of them are gone,” Hall says. She points to each person in the picture. “She moved, he doesn’t want to be involved anymore, he’s gone, she’s gone. It’s been difficult. People move on.”
Her thoughts turn toward the future. “I have lots of goals,” she says, “and I’m not going to be able to do them all, I don’t think. I don’t ask anybody for any money to do any of this stuff. It does cost me to travel, and I’ve traveled quite a bit.” Occasionally, she rises out of her chair to stretch her legs. She cannot sit for long periods of time because of her back, but perhaps not coincidentally, she tends to stand up when the conversation veers toward a topic that excites or vexes her.
Hall’s voice rises. “I really believe knowing about this is better than not knowing,” she says. “A lot of people are scared, and I’m scared, too. But you need to protect your kids, your family, your pets, your grandkids. I’m retired, I have a very bad back — there are times I can’t do anything. But when I can, I want to help. I just think that maybe I can make a difference, and I hope I’ve made a difference here.”