November 4, 2003

Industrial Past Haunts Town

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Like many older manufacturing towns, the Village of Endicott, known as “The Birthplace of IBM,” is currently facing the industrial consequences of its past. However, industry left more than economic scars on Endicott, as the residents now struggle to understand and deal with the “toxic plume” left behind by spills from IBM and other businesses.

The New York State Department of Health and IBM say that the contaminants are currently below levels that would affect health, but some residents blame various health problems on the contaminated water and air in their community.


IBM has been dealing with the original problem of groundwater contamination since 1980. They began this decontamination process after an employee spilled 4,100 gallons of trichloroethane (TCA), a dissolving agent, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal.

Since then, IBM has installed several pump stations to pump out the contaminated water, treat it to remove TCA and other potentially harmful chemicals and return it to the ground.

Currently, with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, IBM is examining this process to see if it is possible to “accelerate remediation,” making the cleanup faster and more effective, according to Todd Martin, IBM representative.


However, the possibility of contaminated air is a more recent development in the Endicott case. Last year, NYSDOH required IBM to test the air in buildings above areas with contaminated soil to see if vapors from the soil were traveling up into the indoor air systems. Testing revealed that vapors were in fact migrating into the air.

Although the vapors were present, both the NYSDOH and IBM say the levels of harmful chemicals in the air are far below levels affecting human health. According to NYSDOH, the highest levels measured of one of the other major contaminants, tricolorethene (TCE), are about 300 times lower than levels known to affect the central nervous system.

Breathing very high levels of TCE can cause dizziness, difficulty in breathing and death, but the long-term effects of inhaling or ingesting low levels of TCE are unknown.

“We don’t expect these acute effects,” said Robert W. Denny, the director for the Division of Environmental Health Services for Broome County Department of Health. “The concern is what is the effect of low levels of these chemicals over a lifetime of exposure.”

Current data show some connections between TCE and cancer, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Some of the other chemicals contaminating the air and water in Endicott are also known carcinogens.

However, two studies examining the health effects of contaminated groundwater in Endicott, done in 1986 and 1995 by NYSDOH, found that there were no increase or decrease in cancer occurrence since the contamination.

With the discovery of vapor contamination, the NYSDOH is conducting a new study examining possible health impacts of the vapor.

Although the chemicals are not supposed to have detrimental health impacts, NYSDEC is requiring IBM to remove the chemicals to a point of “no discernible impact.”

To adhere to these regulations, IBM is in the process of installing ventilation systems in any buildings affected by the vapors.

“IBM’s general approach to environmental management is extremely proactive,” said Martin. “Our goal is not only to meet regulatory standards, but to exceed them.”

So far, IBM has offered residents 480 ventilation systems and installed 312 of them. The DEC estimates that scientists have 85 to 95 percent of the affected buildings and the rest have very low levels of contamination.

Martin said that the air in an average home in a non-contaminated area could normally have more of these chemicals present than the air in some of the Endicott homes.

“[These chemicals] are kind of present in our daily lives,” he said.

Although they accept some of the blame for contamination, IBM claims that they are not the only source. The DEC is also going to test around three other businesses to see if they are possible sources of contamination. One of the possible sources, a local dry cleaners, has also offered to help with a voluntary cleanup program.

Despite these efforts, Endicott residents, politicians and lawyers claim that IBM is not doing enough and the plume still poses health threats.

Residents have formed two different organizations around this subject, Citizens Acting to Restore Endicott and Resident Action Group of Endicott.

The coordinator and co-founder of RAGE, Allen Turnbull, said he formed the group after doctors diagnosed his wife with squamous cell cancer of the throat.

“My wife does not smoke and does not drink alcohol. And the only way she got this is through what she drank or what she breathed,” he said. “I am highly suspicious that [the contamination] was what caused my wife’s cancer.”

So far, his organization has convinced the Wall Street Journal to write a story on the town’s contamination and meets regularly with the NYSDOH, NYSDEC and ATSDR. They have also met with New York State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer, Congressmember Maurice Hinchey (D-22) and Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) to address the issue.

Turnbull believes that most residents are dissatisfied with how IBM is handling the contamination. He referred to an online poll where two-thirds of residents answered no to the question, “Do you feel like IBM is making an honest effort to rectify the situation?” Although online polls can often be inaccurate, he said these results seem about correct.

Turnbull himself thinks that IBM’s actions are too little, too late.

“They could have done a lot more many years ago,” he said.

As for citizens’ general reactions to the contamination, he said there isn’t one main response.

“The mood of the community is all over the place. It goes from shock and disbelief, to outright rage, to people who just throw their hands up in the air,” he said.

Although most people are mainly concerned about their health, many citizens also worry about their property values. RAGE recently collected 600 signatures from residents of Endicott as part of a petition drive to convince IBM to participate in a “Property Value Protection Plan.”

This plan would require IBM to compensate residents for loss in market value of their property. So far, IBM has refused to participate, again citing that they are not the only source of contamination.

Beyond pressuring IBM, Turnbull said RAGE’s long-term goal is to have governmental agencies establish “safe living standards for residential homes,” like the Occupational Safety and Health Association requires for the workplace.

After hearing stories like Turnbull’s, Hinchey decided to become involved in the Endicott issue.

“No one else was advocating for them. They’ve been suffering under these conditions for decades,” he said.

He believes that although IBM is following the regulations, they are not doing enough to clean up the contamination.

“The only thing they’re done so far is to mitigate the damage and reduce the damage, but not in a comprehensive way,” he said. “This is a matter of life and death.”

He is also currently pushing for the Environmental Protection Agency to change the designation of the Endicott cleanup from a Class IV contaminated site to a Class II contaminated site. A Class IV site is supposed to be inactive, com
pletely understood and under control, while a Class II site presents a far more severe threat.

Hinchey also wants the Endicott cleanup to fall under the state Superfund toxic cleanup program, that deals with active sites, rather than under the less urgent Resource, Recovery and Reclamation Act that it is now under.

On October 10, the EPA agreed to investigate the Endicott contamination after pressure from Hinchey, according to Binghamton area television station WBNG.

Hinchey supports these measures because he says he has seen an unusual amount of cancers in the town, particularly a high incidence of childhood cancer. He explained that the chemicals contaminating the air and water in Endicott could affect a fetus carried by a pregnant mother breathing in contaminated air and drinking contaminated water.

“Bone cancer in children is very unusual. What could be the cause of it?” he said. “There’s an awful lot of circumstantial evidence.”

Along with political action, some law firms are considering legal action against IBM.

Stephen Schwarz, senior partner for Farci & Lange, said that his firm may file a lawsuit against IBM for the damages against individual residents of Endicott.

“We believe these people deserve to be compensated,” he said.

They are working with the California law firm Masry & Vititoe, best known for employing Erin Brockovich.

He said that the two firms would sue IBM for negligence, holding them legally liable for allowing pollution into the environment.

“The amount they allowed to get into the groundwater is enormous,” she said. “It wasn’t a one time thing.”

Although IBM says that only about 40 percent of the contamination comes from their buildings, Schwarz said, “We believe there’s substantial proof already that the chemicals, 90 percent of them, came from IBM.”

The firm is currently investigating whether the contamination negatively influences property values and possible health effects of the contamination, particularly cancer.

If they do file a suit, it will represent a group of about 200 individuals from the town. Unlike a class-action lawsuit, any possible settlement money will go to each individual person for their damages, including health effects, exposure to the chemicals and loss in property values.

Archived article by Shannon Brescher