New York Newsday  [Printer-friendly version]
February 5, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: For more than 20 years government scientists
have been "cleaning up" toxic wastes, such as tetrachloroethylene
(dry cleaning fluid). Now it turns out that the soil doesn't really
get clean. Toxic fumes linger in the tiny air spaces between
particles of soil, then migrate into people's homes and workplaces --
long after the "cleanup" has been complete and the neighborhood has
been declared "safe." It's called vapor intrusion.]

By Bill Bleyer

[Rachel's introduction: Government scientists have recently discovered
that toxic wastes site don't get as clean as everyone had thought.
Chemicals remain attached to the soil and begin to move around,
contaminating the air inside homes and commercial buildings. It's
called vapor intrusion. For more information, check in with Lenny
Siegel at the Center for Public Environmental Oversight. The only
long-term solution to many of these problems is zero discharge, which
means zero manufacturing of many persistant organic chemicals. This is
the key to preventing toxic spills and their legacy of human
suffering. Cleaning up so-called vapor-intrusion will soon be a huge
industry -- meanwhile, we are 'whistling past the graveyard' denying
that there's a better way to keep our clothes clean.]

Until three years ago, public health officials thought that when they
had cleaned up spilled toxic solvents in the ground, their work was
done. But then they learned about "vapor intrusion."

That is a process where the remaining traces of contaminants -- such
as tetrachloroethylene -- form a gas that migrates through the soil
into adjacent structures, creating a health hazard. Some of the
chemicals are known carcinogens and others could create other health

So the state environmental conservation and health departments are
finalizing a plan for dealing with the problem by the end of the year.

At the same time, the agencies are prioritizing a list of 421 toxic
sites -- including 89 on Long Island and 11 in New York City -- where
cleanups were completed or planned before 2003 and now need to be re-
examined for toxic fumes.

In a few cases, such as a former IBM site in upstate Endicott, a vapor
cleanup is already under way at 441 properties above a 300-acre plume.
And some other sites, including a dry cleaning company in Port
Washington and an industrial site in New Cassel, are being studied to
develop vapor cleanup plans.

"The state is being more aggressive than other states, and that's a
good thing," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the
Farmingdale-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting, an environmental database
firm in Ithaca, said there are sites on Long Island where solvent
vapors have intruded from soil into libraries, a tennis academy and a

"The problem has been that the state never had an overall program to
try to look back at these sites that they once determined had been
cleaned up," he said. "Now, for the first time, it appears that we
have a comprehensive review of all of the sites that in many cases
have been known about for decades to find out whether or not people
are actually breathing these solvent fumes in their homes and other

"The question is, how are they going to clean up these problems if
they find widespread vapor intrusion?"

Maureen Wren, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental
Conservation, said her agency and the health department are reviewing
the proposed policy as well as recommendations in a report issued last
month by the Assembly environmental conservation committee.

"We'll be addressing the sites with the greatest potential first,"
said Wren, who noted that toxic sites identified since 2003 have been
examined for vapor intrusion.

Assemb. Thomas DiNapoli (D-Great Neck), chairman of the environmental
conservation committee, said the panel recommended "that if you detect
the chemical, you should go right to mitigation because the cost of
mitigation and monitoring are pretty similar."

The committee also stressed that the state agencies need to make sure
residents and businesses have full and timely information about

Paul Granger, superintendent of the Plainview Water District, which
has 14 sites on the state list, said he welcomed any action that
protects the community.

"We were aware of issues surrounding the water quality for quite some
time and took the initiative to correct it immediately. When we
noticed the water quality was diminishing, we put treatment systems in
place. The water is absolutely safe to drink," he said. "I'm glad they
are at least coming back to check."

According to Carl Johnson, DEC deputy commissioner for air and waste
management, the proposed policy calls for "the party responsible for
contaminating the site to pay for and perform the vapor intrusion
evaluation, as well as... monitoring of any mitigation system which
would be required." If that's not possible, the state would step in.

The mitigation methods include sealing foundation cracks and adjusting
heating, ventilation or air- conditioning systems to prevent vapor

Staff writer Deborah S. Morris contributed to this story.

Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.