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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

By: Greg Ryan
A Resident Outraged
Photographs by Michael Polito

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.

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

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.

 

 

mapThis map, taken from a New York State Department of Health report, depicts the extent of the groundwater contamination in the area surrounding the Hopewell Precision plant. Hall‘s house is located on Creamery Road, about 600 feet west of Route 82

Hall, along with her neighbors, already knew that the TCE had originated from what the EPA referred to as the “former Hopewell Precision site,” a property located about a mile northeast of Hall’s house on a small Route 82 outlet named Ryan Drive. What was less clear was who was responsible for the pollution. Since 1980, metal-equipment manufacturer Hopewell Precision had operated out of a facility at 19 Ryan Drive; from 1977 to 1980, it was located next door at 15 Ryan Drive. During Hopewell Precision’s four years at 15 Ryan Drive, the state Department of Environmental Conservation received an anonymous tip that the manufacturer was dumping TCE onto the property grounds. (As long as it is properly disposed of, the chemical was — and still is — legal to use as a degreaser or cleaning solvent. Dumping TCE outside, however, is illegal.) A state Department of Environmental Conservation investigation failed to uncover evidence that any such pollution occurred, and the agency dropped the investigation in 1994. Whatever amount of TCE was underground at that point remained there, undetected, until the EPA discovered it on a routine assessment in 2003.

Whatever its source, there was little question as to how the TCE traveled from the lot into the individual homes: It seeped into the earth, then into the groundwater, and then into the private wells that Hall and her neighbors used for drinking water. Ingested over a long period of time, TCE could wreak all kinds of havoc on the human body. The chemical is linked to increased incidences of cancer (particularly non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and cancers of the liver and kidney), immune system deficiencies, and birth defects in the fetuses of pregnant women. The chemical also has been known to cause headaches, skin rashes, and cognitive problems such as short-term memory loss.

The worst symptoms Hall had experienced were dizziness and psoriasis; the TCE didn’t seem to make her back condition any worse. Other residents in the neighborhood were not as fortunate. There was the 19-year-old with testicular cancer, the 40-year-old with kidney cancer, the infant born blind with a nonfunctioning kidney. Hall’s next-door neighbors, the Kovers, have a daughter who suffered blackout episodes as an infant, and a son with severe developmental disabilities. There is no way to definitively prove the illnesses are caused by TCE, but given the preponderance of cases, Hall says that “there is no doubt in [her] mind that these problems are caused from the water.”

In terms of cleanup, toxic sites as badly polluted as Hall’s neighborhood usually take one of two paths: They are designated as federal Superfund sites, a status reserved only for what the EPA considers to be the nation’s most polluted sites (such as the Shenandoah Road site); or they are placed in the less-selective state Superfund program. Once on either list, a site undergoes a painstaking review process and eventually is cleaned to the point that the EPA or DEC deems it safe.

In either case, the process often lasts decades, and is frequently marred by legal and financial quarrels. Until 1995, the federal Superfund was financed through a combination of taxes on polluter corporations and everyday citizens. That year, however, Congress allowed the polluter-tax provision to lapse, and since then the program has been forced to rely exclusively on the common person. Despite inflation, its funding has never exceeded what it was in the mid-1990s, a fact that has increasingly impacted the agency’s ability to clean up sites. (If the EPA can directly tie a business to the pollution, it can force the company to pay for the cleanup. At the moment, however, it looked like that would not be an option in the case of Hopewell Precision.) The state Superfund was in even worse shape: It was bankrupt. Governor George Pataki and the state legislature agreed that the program needed to be revived, but disputes over funding levels and cleanup standards left it in bureaucratic purgatory.

Neither option seemed promising, but each was better than no Superfund, in which case the neighborhood would receive only the most minimal of protections. Of the two Superfunds, it was the federal version that received greater attention and money. That was the designation Hall knew the neighborhood needed.

As the summer of 2003 faltered along, it became clear that the number of TCE-infected homes was somewhere in the dozens. Not only that, but the TCE in the groundwater was spreading: More homes would likely be contaminated. Some of the residents’ water had also tested positive for 1,1,1-trichloroethane, or 1,1,1-TCA, a compound suspected of causing similar health problems to TCE. What had started as an unsettling unknown was now a fully grasped neighborhood nightmare. “It was to the point where I couldn’t even sleep at night, thinking about this stuff,” Hall says. “I wanted people to be made aware about what was going on. I wanted a wrong to be righted.”

Hall couldn’t wait around any longer. She needed to do something. Six homes in Hopewell Junction had tested positive for TCE, but at a level slightly below the EPA standard of five parts per billion. Foster’s water, for example, contained 4.8 parts per billion TCE. “If you’re a 4.8, you should be concerned,” Hall says. “But no, the EPA is telling them, ‘Oh, you don’t have to worry, it’s within the standards.’ To me, that’s a lie, and that makes me mad.” She wrote a letter to her state senator, Stephen Saland, about her neighbors’ plight. “I certainly understand your concern in this matter,” Saland wrote back. “Please be sure that I will monitor these ongoing developments closely. Given the federal EPA is lead agency on these matters, you may also wish to contact your federal representatives.” Unsatisfied with Saland’s response, Hall next wrote to Sue Kelly, her Congressional representative in Washington. Kelly sent a note to the EPA, asking the agency to supply the six homes with clean water. Not now, the EPA said.

Hall still agonized over the condition of her own water. A month after the EPA had told her that her home was contaminated, Hall was still showering in water poisoned with TCE. Repeated calls to the EPA about the installation of filters resulted only in pleas for patience. The agency told Hall it would install the filters once every home in the area had been tested. It looked as though she had hit another dead end.

But in late June, Hall wrote a letter to the editor at the Poughkeepsie Journal about the situation, and the newspaper printed it. “I read that taking a shower for 10 minutes in water with TCE is just as bad as drinking it,” Hall wrote. “My family and I are subjected to a chemical that can cause cancer, kidney and liver disease, and skin problems while the EPA takes their time giving us the filter we so desperately need.”

The newspaper’s environmental reporter at the time, Dan Shapley, decided to pursue the story. He called Jim Haklar, the EPA’s community involvement coordinator for the site. The agency’s stance on the filters had suddenly changed. “A decision was made that we really couldn’t delay the installation any further,” Haklar told him. Within weeks, Hall and the rest of the affected residents had filters installed in their homes.

By mid-summer, several people were establishing themselves as neighborhood leaders. Hall headed the efforts to reach out to politicians. Betty Hicks, who lived off of Creamery Road on Lenart Place, ran meetings and wrote a neighborhood newsletter. Bill Borell, a Metro-North engineer who owned a six-acre property on Route 82, studied the technical issues. “We educated ourselves as much as we could, so when we spoke to the EPA, they would listen,” Borell says. The neighborhood began coalescing around the common threat they faced. A meeting with EPA officials in July brought 200 community members to the local elementary school, Hall estimates. “It tended, on many levels, to bring the neighborhood together,” Borell says. “Debra turned out to be one of my very, very close friends.”

Other residents in the neighborhood were not as fortunate. There was the 19-year-old with testicular cancer, the 40-year-old with kidney cancer, the infant born blind with a nonfunctioning kidney

In September, a group of the residents scored a private meeting with Kelly. Hall had prepared a speech to read to Kelly, but she was skeptical of the congresswoman’s commitment — and it showed. Her body language was “very guarded,” says Foster, who attended the meeting. Hall did not allow her feelings to upset the delivery of her speech, however. “Debra read the most eloquent statement about how she felt, how she had met people affected by the water,” Foster says. “It totally drew Kelly in.” From that point forward, the neighborhood had an ally in the Republican. “I realized no one was paying any attention to this woman,” Kelly says. “She had the facts, she knew what she was talking about, and they weren’t giving her the credibility she deserved. And that made me pretty angry.”

Sitting at home all day while David was at work, Hall wrote letter after letter to the EPA, the DEC, environmental advocacy organizations, and representatives of every level of government, asking them to do whatever they could to help the neighborhood get named to the Superfund list. In November, Erin Crotty, the commissioner of the DEC, wrote a letter to the regional EPA administrator calling for the site to be added to the list. In February, Senator Charles Schumer did the same. He was followed shortly thereafter by Kelly. Following the turmoil over the filters, Hall’s relationship with the EPA improved vastly. “Ever since then, the EPA’s been really great,” she says.

Back in January, however, an EPA official had told Hall that the agency needed to test her home for something called vapor intrusion. It so happened that the health threat posed by contaminated water had been well documented for decades, but the ability of those same toxic chemicals to invade indoor air, from the groundwater beneath a house, had been unknown — until now. In February, she received the results. The air in her home contained TCE levels up to nine times higher than what the DEC considered safe. “I was bawling like a baby. It felt like somebody had shot me,” Hall says. “The air! The air! I could escape from the water, but I couldn’t escape from the air.”

A month later, in March, Hall received more bad news: The Hopewell Junction site had been left off the federal Superfund list. The EPA regional administrator had not received the necessary paperwork in time for the site to be considered for inclusion, and it would be months before the neighborhood would even be eligible for review. In the meantime, its residents faced a new threat to their health: the air they breathed. And this time, there was no stopgap measure like the bottled water to save them. Until the EPA installed air filters, the residents would continue to breathe in chemicals that might give them cancer. There was nothing they could do about it.

 

 

carbon filtration systemResidents 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.

“I realized no one was paying any attention to this woman,” Kelly says. “She had the facts, she knew what she was talking about, and they weren’t giving her the credibility she deserved. And that made me pretty angry.”

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.

 

 

sub-slab depressurization systemThe 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.”

Foster has nicknamed Hall “the Erin Brockovich of Creamery Road.” Her neighbor’s dedication and persistence astonish her

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.”