A Hidden Superfund Site on Experimental Road

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Photo by Flickr/Matt MacGillivray
Sunset over Cayuga Lake in upstate New York.

First impressions: Chain-link fence with barbed wire around the entire site. Front lawn mowed, back overgrown with sumac. Big ragged hole in the Powerex, Inc. Auburn, New York sign. Doors of the brick building chained shut. Eleven monitoring wells sticking out of the grass in a straight line. Empty flagpoles. White guard house, fenced. Shiny padlock. No trespassing. Emergency contact: a name, a number. No Superfund signage posted. Little box houses across the street, nicely maintained. Health club right next door.

Seven more monitoring wells on the southwestern edge of the parking lot. A little boy with his father, learning. His big-boy bike: a two-wheeler, no training wheels. Fat Huffy wheels crossing faded yellow lines, weeds pushing through cracks in the asphalt. Wispy clouds gently fading into a high-noon summer sky.

The boy on the bike pedals and wobbles, but isn’t looking back. Trusts his father is right behind him, trusts his father is keeping him safe. Circling unsteadily in this abandoned lot with his father following close. No one else around except a woman in a car, recording her impressions.

I’m suddenly conscious of my own presence, my rental car, my notebook. I am not in Auburn on official business. I no longer have any official business. So why this need to explore and record?

Years before, my husband and I brought our 2-year-old daughter to visit his parents for a month in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York, on Cayuga Lake between Auburn and Seneca Falls. I was pregnant with our youngest child and had just dropped the “working” from working mom, as if the two can be divorced. I had been an environmental regulator for the State of Connecticut, overseeing the investigation and remediation of contaminated sites.

We indulged in sleep every morning, traced the flight of the osprey in the afternoon sky. We sipped lemonade on the back porch, watched our daughter dance beneath the willows, dangled our toes off the rickety dock.

When my husband took his daily bike ride, my daughter and I stayed home and ate ice cream. Between licks, we’d touch my swollen belly and laugh at the kicks our snack induced. Her toddler hand would rest near my navel, her chocolate eyes astonished.

My in-laws came down in the evenings to join us for sunset and a meal. The air thickened with citronella, and just as the sun blurred into the gray blue tree line across the lake, my wet-haired girl would emerge from the house, pink and candied from her bath, ready for a story.

Time in the country is supposed to be like that: cleansing, refreshing. Drinking lemonade on the porch, leaning back in the swing with the kids. And perhaps that’s what I was thinking years later, long after we’d moved out west, and my husband was busy working and I was busy mothering: good old times. My old times.

An empty afternoon and nostalgia for my work led me to the internet, where I casually searched online databases for interesting things in places I’ve lived. That’s when this one little fact slipped off the screen, slipped like a knife from my hands with the baby underfoot: Just a few miles from the cottage—where I’d poured bathwater over suds in my daughter’s silken hair and drunk lemonade made from the tap—is a hidden Superfund site.

If you ask people what a Superfund site looks like, they’ll likely tell you something resembling deep urban decay: rusting oil tanks, stagnant chemical wastewater ponds, abandoned parking lots and dilapidated buildings, graffiti and broken windows. They won’t tell you it’s a place with rolling hills of corn and clover, of vineyards and orchard rows. There’ll be no mention of red barns or lazy cows, Queen Anne’s lace and periwinkle chicory shivering by the road.

The Cayuga County Groundwater Contamination Site is nearly seven miles long. Seven miles of solvent-laced groundwater stretching all the way from the western side of Auburn, New York, just south of Routes 5 and 20, to the Village of Union Springs. The total area of contaminated groundwater: 4.8 square miles—the size of a town, a small town like the neighboring one, Seneca Falls, where my husband had grown up. On the surface of this place, farmers mount their tractors for a hard day’s work, churning fertile soil into rows, thickening the air with the tangy scent of hay and fresh manure. On the surface, school buses collect children an hour before school because they live so far from town. On the surface are idyllic scenes of quilted hills, of geese gathered on harvested land before taking their autumn flight. But underneath are poisons, industrial solvents with sickly sweet scents and cumbersome names—trichloroethylene (TCE), 1,2-dichloroethene (DCE), and vinyl chloride—creeping, flowing, waiting for someone’s well to release them to the surface.

During the summer in Cayuga County, the farmers have little farm stands at the ends of their driveways, where you can buy fresh ears of corn. Sometimes the families are working in the fields, and the stand is left alone. They use the honor system here. Pick your ears of farm fresh corn and put your money in the box. There’s a common, unspoken trust that you will leave the right amount.

A certain site from my old remediation days still haunts me, because I couldn’t do what should have been done. The site was an old machine shop, where waste solvent had been poured into sinks and floor drains that were plumbed to septic tanks and leach fields. The chemicals had saturated the soils, percolating down through the pore space into the groundwater below. The wells for the site and nearby houses were contaminated, but the houses couldn’t be connected to public water. Too much bedrock to blast through. The city couldn’t extend the line, so treatment systems were installed on the wells, and I monitored them for the state.

The machine shop had been a family business. The parents had died and left the property to a brother and sister who said they wanted to do the right thing, but they didn’t have the money. Minor clean-up work was done, the floor drains plugged, the septic tanks abandoned, but the site sat there and slowly festered, pollution migrating like blood from a wound.

The siblings rented the building to a new operation, and every quarter I contacted a man I’ll call Virgil to arrange for the sampling. I always entered through the office, where Virgil’s daughter sometimes stayed because child care was expensive. I never saw her when I sampled, but I’d step over her dolls and toys, or Virgil would kick them into the corner, as we made our way through the production area into the utility room.

Each time, I would think about suggesting to him that maybe this place wasn’t the best place for his 3-year-old daughter to sit and play, because the plume still sat beneath the foundation and decayed and evolved into a more toxic stew, and the vapors could sometimes waft back up into the airspace of the building, and she could breathe them in as she combed her baby doll’s hair or pretended to feed it with a spoon. But then, the legal boundaries of my official position would strangle the impulse, and I would remind myself that the site was a factory, not a home or a day care, and that telling this man not to bring his daughter to work was beyond my scope of authority. Who was I to make judgment on a family of limited means? I couldn’t show that she was being harmed—I didn’t have the exposure standards for that.

Would I flash my badge and scold him if I saw him smoking near her as well? Or letting her ride a bike without a helmet? I quietly collected my samples and bottled my instinct with the lid.

The little boy in the Powerex parking lot falters on his bike, and something warm flushes my cheeks, something like connection to these strangers. I want to roll down my window and tell him to keep it up, that he’s almost got it.

I remember teaching my oldest daughter to ride. We placed her at the top of a gentle slope in the alley behind our house, encouraged her to coast down without pedaling, again and again, until she finally found stability. We whooped and cheered until her balance was so solid that she couldn’t resist pedaling forward. I realize now how lucky we are to have an open alley behind our house to teach our children to ride their bikes. Lucky that we don’t live on a rural road out in the country, somewhere south of Routes 5 and 20, where we would have to load the bike into a pick-up and drive to some abandoned lot out on the edge of town. But then, I guess on the surface it seems like a safe enough place to ride around.

The problem first emerged seven miles away in the Village of Union Springs. In 1988, the village found chlorinated solvents in one of its wells. Not a lot, but since chlorinated solvents don’t naturally occur, someone started asking questions. The fact that solvents were found all the way down there back in 1988 only means that dozens of farms and homes in that big space between these two towns were already engulfed by a toxic plume. They were already watering their horses with TCE, mixing their oatmeal with vinyl chloride. But nobody knew that then. Instead, they scratched their heads and asked themselves, where on earth did this problem come from? Union Springs didn’t have any industry.

Meanwhile, back in Auburn, a company called Powerex was manufacturing high-voltage semiconductors at a factory it had purchased from General Electric, which had made electronic components there since 1951, and had dumped their waste solvents, including TCE, into two unlined evaporation ponds for nearly two decades. Before GE sold the site to Powerex in 1986, they sampled the soil around the unlined impoundments and found concentrations of TCE over 180,000 parts per billion. They sampled groundwater too and found exorbitant concentrations of TCE, DCE, and vinyl chloride—the same compounds that were eventually discovered in the Union Springs well. In fact, there was so much chemical beneath GE that it wasn’t all dissolved—which is not unlike when you’ve poured too much sugar in your tea, and the particles of undissolved crystals whirl around before falling and accumulating on the bottom of the glass. Or in this case, solvent on the bottom of the aquifer.

But none of this information helped the community back then, because none of it was shared. GE didn’t check to see if its contamination was heading for any wells, and it seems that none of the authorities thought to ask.

At my old job, whenever someone asked for volunteers to do outreach, I always raised my hand. I liked going to schools and science fairs to share stories about my work.

I always brought a big suitcase to my demonstrations, inside of which I carried a groundwater model—the “ant farm” as we called it—a long plastic tank filled with layers of sand to look like a cross section of an aquifer.

I’d stage the ant farm on a table in the front of the room and fill it with water to illustrate how groundwater flows. It had fancy plastic wells that I could pump, and just like straws, they pulled the water up through the sand and out into my glass.

When I wanted to teach them about pollution, I often picked volunteers from the audience. These were usually middle-schoolers, so I’d get a couple of overachievers or ring-leaders raising their hands while the rest of them stared with glazed-over eyes. I’d select two and designate one of them as the Factory, the other as the Town. Then I’d give Factory Kid a vial of colored water to pour into the ant farm. He would, and like magic, the kids awakened and leaned forward to watch the red stain leach from the top of the model into the saturated sand below.

“Now, Ms. Public Works Director,” I’d say to the other, “start pumping your well.” She would squeeze the bulb on the end of the tube again and again, pulling the ugly red stain toward the bottom of her well. The plume stretched like bubblegum across the sand grains in the tank until finally, at some point, the audience would notice the pink water accumulating in my cup and emit a collective Eeeew.

“You’re going to jail!” someone would invariably shout at Factory Kid, and everyone would laugh and eagerly raise their hands to take turns at polluting the aquifer and pumping it clean. I would marvel at their beautiful minds and sense of poetic justice.

Here’s what happens when your well has been contaminated: You are ordered to drink bottled water, and if you’re lucky, the county, or the state, or maybe even the EPA is paying for it, and you are told, don’t bathe any children under 12 with your well water, and don’t take showers, but if you do, make them short and use cool water and run the bathroom fan while you do it, because the chemicals will volatilize in hot water, and it’s bad to breathe the vapors.

You wonder, What about my teenager, how is he supposed to get clean? And what about the dishwasher, should I stop using that? What should I do about our laundry? You dwell on these questions of practical matters because you’re trying not to do another thing they told you not to do: Don’t lose sleep at night, because there’s no way to know if harm’s already been caused. You try not to think about how long you’ve been exposed or what it means for your family’s health.

You do this for two or three weeks, and all the while you keep calling the guy at the county or the woman at the state, just asking for an update, and they’re trying their best to be nice to you, as nice as they can be when they’re handling 100 similar complaints. A treatment system is finally installed on your well—which is good, because now your home can return to something resembling normal, but deep in the pit of your stomach is an unsettling distrust. Over the next several months, or maybe even years, you attend the public meetings, feel your anger swell. You ask the woman who samples your well, Are you guys making any progress? She tells you they want to connect you to public water, but it takes money and political will. But what about the people who caused it? She sighs and repeats familiar words: They don’t officially know who did this. They’re still investigating the source.

Powerex closed its doors in the spring of 1990. It sold the property back to GE so that GE could clean up its on-site mess. My husband was a junior in high school then. He played soccer for a private club that held its practices in Union Springs. His coach ran them hard, made them do “suicides” on the field: You run out and back to every line until you’ve covered the entire field, multiple times. Afterward, you’re so thirsty and tired that your hand trembles from holding down the button on the drinking fountain at the school. The fountain gets its water from the village’s public well.

When I first found out, I scoured the maps and fact sheets to see where the plume was in relation to my in-laws’ cottage. They did not intersect. I should have been relieved, but I wasn’t. I could not shake my sense of betrayal. How could this problem have snuck up on me?

I asked my mother-in-law, “Did you know anything about this plume?” She’s savvy about affairs in the region. The Cayuga Indian land claim is her latest focus. She can tell you which gas stations are now owned by the Cayuga Tribe, and which businesses she thinks they’ve killed with their tax-free gas and cigarettes. But she didn’t know anything about the Superfund site hovering next to her cottage. She shrugged. “The lake house has public water, so …” So what? Should that exempt us from feeling wronged?

In 2000, 12 years after first discovering chlorinated solvents in the Union Springs well, the Cayuga County and New York State health departments finally mobilized funding to investigate the persistence of the low-level contamination. They conducted sampling of private wells in several consecutive rounds. Like peeling layers of an onion, each round stung a little more, until it became frighteningly clear that the EPA should be involved. Over the next several months, more than 300 drinking water samples were collected in the corridor between Auburn and Union Springs. They found 68 private wells yielding water seasoned with TCE, DCE, and vinyl chloride. The highest concentrations were located in the wells closest to GE: Pinckney Road, Overbrook Drive, and Experimental Road.

Experimental Road. How do you suppose they selected that particular name? Was it someone’s affinity for science, or was there some other interesting anecdote? Here’s one that comes to mind: During the 2003 Public Health Assessment of this site, affected residents were asked to participate in the New York State VOC Exposure Registry, so the state could keep track of long-term impacts from their ingestion of the plume.

I called and wrote letters to the regulatory contacts for the site. It felt strange, sitting on that side of the table, asking for details about a case. But I felt righteous, shaken by the near-miss. My young daughter and I had shared lemonade made from water adjacent to a solvent plume. No doubt a few years before, some other pregnant woman and child had probably done the same, except directly within its path.

I wrote: Has the EPA identified the potentially responsible parties for this site? Information available online suggests that the former GE facility in Auburn is a possible source.

The people who do what I used to do evaded my questions well:

EPA has not identified a potentially responsible party for this site. EPA has reviewed information on potential sources in the area. EPA installed monitoring wells in areas down gradient of potential sources of groundwater contamination to evaluate their potential contribution to groundwater contamination. EPA is in the process of preparing a remedial investigation (RI) report for the site.

The date on the EPA’s response is June 16, 2010, 22 years after solvents were first discovered in the Union Springs well, eight years after the contamination received its Superfund designation. The woman from the county told me, “I’ve been asking EPA for the RI Report for at least the last five years.”

I decided that the next time we went to New York, I would visit the source myself.

Now I’m sitting in the rental car watching a little boy learning to ride a bike, watching a milestone being reached. I wonder if the man who took care to bring his son to this quiet place with no cars and no traffic, no bumps in the sidewalk, who took care to fasten a helmet to protect his tender head—I wonder if this man knows what I know about this place. Would he feel the same betrayal? Towns like Auburn will do almost anything to keep a company like GE. They bring jobs, sponsor Little League teams—but what happens after they’ve made their money and walked away? What happens when they leave a legacy of contamination? There’s an imbalance of give and take.

September 2012. A generation has passed. Nearly a quarter century after chlorinated solvents first appeared in the Union Springs well, the EPA announces an agreement with GE on responsibility for the site. They finally declare the source.

Back when I was an environmental regulator, this type of milestone would have prompted celebration, a gathering for beers right after work. All that hard work finally paid off, you tell yourself. All the fieldwork, the number-crunching, the phone calls and public hearings, the contentious meetings with lawyers and consultants, the arguments over scopes of work and investigation results—it all finally paid off. Or did it? Was the public protected from harm? Is the site any closer to clean?

People sometimes ask me why I left that line of work. I still fumble with my answer, because really I haven’t left. Once you know, you always know, and you can’t avert your eyes. The job I did was important work, but it also made me angry. Too angry. Steam-in-the-pressure-cooker angry. Blackened coal in the fire and slowly burning me away.

Polar ice caps melt faster than the time it takes to address contaminated sites. Preventative regulation is a political refugee. This system? This system is an incubator for cancer, a violation of public trust. What can you really protect when it takes 20 years to name an obvious source? There were always too many roadblocks, and there are always too many sites.

Like the gas station on the corner, the dry cleaner up the street. The welding shop by the railroad, the auto body shop by the bridge. Or the machine shop, the natural gas compressor station, the refineries, and mills. Or the old pump foundry near my husband’s high school, where my father-in-law worked for most of his life. That site is the source of someone’s problems, only I’m not sure they know it yet. Not sure they realize the breadth and depth that pollution can really reach. I gently inform my husband, “Turns out when you were a kid, you were breathing in Goulds and drinking in GE.”

I’m thinking of the dairy farmer who lived a few miles south of town. He’d been farming there for 35 years. Every day he stood in rubber boots and a cloud of steam, washing the parlor equipment, spraying it clean before the cows have another milking. Spraying it clean to protect the milk, spraying it clean for the people who drink it.

One day, county health officials came to his house to sample his well. They collected little vials of water, shook his hand, and left their cards. Some time later, he received news that his well was contaminated, as in no longer safe to drink. He was told he must use bottled water, must avoid taking hot showers because the chemicals can volatilize in the steam.

Imagine that dairy farmer now, sitting alone at his kitchen table after hearing this kind of news. He looks at the kitchen sink, the sponge still damp from cleaning up breakfast. The coffeemaker on the counter, the liquid steaming in its pot. He thinks of the mason jars of vegetables his wife boiled for the pantry this fall. He thinks of the milking parlor equipment, about breathing in all that steam. Then he thinks about the cows, grazing in the pasture a little farther down. And an insulated dairy truck maybe a half-mile from the farm, the driver turning north toward Experimental Road.

Mary Heather Noble is an environmental scientist, writer, and mother whose work is informed by her former career as a state environmental regulator. She lives and writes in Bend, Oregon. Reprinted from Fourth Genre (Fall 2014), a journal devoted to publishing notable, innovative work in nonfiction, published by Michigan State University Press.

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