WILLIAMSTOWN -- Ronald Reagan was still in the White House when cancer-causing chemicals were discovered leaching from the UniFirst facility in Williamstown. Some residents today are asking why the underground toxic plume still poses threats to local groundwater, public health and residential "After 23 years, it's time to clean this stuff up," insists Horace Duke, Jr., who's lived in his Williamstown home for 39 years, right across the street from UniFirst. In August 1985, Duke was walking outside his home when he noticed earth-moving equipment digging up the soil across the road. Moments later, a dump truck drove by hauling the toxic sludge off the site.
"I got a full breath of the contaminated stuff in the air," Duke recalls. "My skin felt like it was burning, my eyes watered, my mouth and nose and lungs felt like they were on fire, and I went down, flat on the ground."
Duke learned later that UniFirst, one of the nation's largest suppliers of uniforms and protective apparel, had been illegally dumping carcinogenic solvents into the ground and the municipal sewer system, contaminating the air and groundwater around the site. Other illegal dumping areas were also discovered elsewhere in the state. In all, more than 80 truckloads of contaminated soil and sludge were removed from the site. Some of it was sent to a certified landfill in New York, but other toxic material was illegally dumped in other towns, according to the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.
The Williamstown waste, which included the hazardous chemicals trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene, affected 56 nearby homes, an adjacent elementary school and high school, and a neighboring creek. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there is no safe level of human exposure to trichloroethylene.
For about two years in the late 1970s or early '80s, UniFirst buried on-site about 30 gallons per week of tetrachloroethylene, a solvent used in the dry-cleaning process. In 1982, it was discovered that for at least seven years, a leaking pipe had allowed an unknown quantity of water contaminated with perchloroethylene to seep into the soil and groundwater.
To date, no one knows exactly how much of these and other toxins flowed into Williamstown's groundwater or precisely how large the toxic plume has grown. Nor have any health problems in the community been directly linked to the pollution. But of the more than 3000 hazardous waste sites identified in Vermont, the one at UniFirst is considered "one of our largest and most complicated," says George Desch of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
Desch explains that the UniFirst site has been overseen by the state under a 1997 consent decree, which includes a 30-year management plan for future monitoring and remediation. Currently, the state has no outstanding complaints or fines against the UniFirst Corporation, which contributes $330,000 annually to a trust fund to cover the ongoing cost of monitoring the site.
But the pace of the cleanup has some residents unsatisfied. It's also given UniFirst the dubious distinction of being named one of 2005's "Dirty Dozen" -- an annual "award" handed out by the Toxics Action Center. The Montpelier-based environmental grouphas given out Dirty Dozen awards for the last nine years to focus attention on some of New England's most egregious polluters. This year, UniFirst was the only Vermont company on the list. It shares the spotlight with a nuclear power plant, a leaking landfill, a trash incinerator and several other hazardous waste sites. (Phone calls for comment from UniFirst's corporate headquarters in Wilmington, Massachusetts, went unanswered as of press time.)
Although the UniFirst contamination is more than two decades old, the site is once again stirring up controversy in this small central Vermont community of about 3000. In the last year, the DEC has been considering reclassifying some 85 acres of groundwater from "potable" to "non-potable." According to the state, the reclassification would help protect public health by preventing anyone from drilling a well into a contaminated source. But due to public outcry and more detailed data collected, the state has since scaled back the reclassification area to 58 acres.
Nearly all the homes with contaminated wells switched their water supply to the municipal water system after the pollution was discovered. But some area residents remain concerned that if the reclassification goes through, it may drive down area property values. Other residents fear that declaring their groundwater non-potable will let UniFirst get away with not cleaning up its past messes and restoring the groundwater to safe, drinkable levels. They also contend that any future landowner of the polluted site would escape liability.
Not so, says Desch at the DEC. The management plan for UniFirst is completely independent of whatever the state decides to do about the groundwater, he points out.
"If the groundwater reclassification proposal were signed today or if it were torn into pieces and abandoned," Desch says, "we would still be looking to continue the oversight in terms of monitoring the groundwater and indoor air systems."
As he explains, several homes and the elementary school are monitored for the presence of volatile compounds, which can vent through the soil and into homes and buildings. These hazardous gases pose a greater health risk than the contaminated groundwater, he says.
For his part, Horace Duke has been more fortunate than some of his neighbors. His family's well has not been polluted yet, nor has his house tested positive for volatile gases.
Nevertheless, he and other residents believe the state should not only continue testing the elementary school but also install air-quality monitors in the high school.
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