Rennie Farm Neighbors Might Sue Dartmouth Over Well Contamination

by Rob Wolfe, originally posted on October 29, 2016


Hanover — Attorneys for a family who live near Hanover Center are threatening to sue Dartmouth College over the contamination of their Rennie Road well with chemicals from a former college lab waste dump site.

Attorneys representing Deb and Richard Higgins this week invoked a federal law that allows them to file suit, after a 90-day waiting period, against polluters who pose an imminent threat to their surroundings.

The lawyers, Geoffrey Vitt, of Norwich, and Anthony Roisman, of Weathersfield, say that Dartmouth has not done enough to contain a plume of toxic chemicals spreading from Rennie Farm, a 218-acre property off Hanover Center Road where the school buried several tons of carcasses from animal experiments decades ago.

“The lawsuit will allege that Dartmouth College has contributed, and is contributing, to the past and present handling, transportation and disposal of solid waste, hazardous waste, medical waste and mixed waste in such a manner that presents an imminent and substantial endangerment to health and the environment,” they wrote in an Oct. 27 letter to Dartmouth College trustees, on which they copied state environmental officials and their counterparts in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Under the federal statute in question, the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Dartmouth has three months to comply with the complainants’ request for a more thorough remediation.

If the college does not, the Higginses may bring suit in U.S. District Court in Concord.

A college spokesman on Friday said administrators were still reviewing the letter.

“The college is working actively in consultation with the state to clean up the contamination at the Rennie Farm site as expeditiously and safely as possible,” the spokesman, Justin Anderson, said in an email. “We are committed to protecting the health of our neighbors, addressing their concerns, and communicating regularly and openly with them about the project.”

Dartmouth has provided the family with bottled water, access to medical advice and a dioxane filter for their well, Anderson noted.

More than a year has passed since the Higginses first learned that their drinking well contained a substance called 1,4-dioxane. Used in laboratory solvents and some household products, 1,4-dioxane is classified as a probable carcinogen by the EPA.

Before the tests of their wells in late summer 2015 revealed dioxane at twice the state standard for water quality, the Higginses experienced dizziness, skin peeling in their mouths and sores on their skin. Those symptoms disappeared, the Higginses said, when they stopped using their well water.

“The Higgins(es) have already felt the physical effects of this contamination,” their attorneys’ letter said, “and it is likely that there is more to come.”

Over the long term, 1,4-dioxane can cause kidney and liver damage, in addition to cancer.

“It’s tremendous stress that we’re both under,” Deb Higgins said by phone on Friday. “It’s in every conversation that we have. It’s never not talked about in this house. Every day Richard and I have this conversation about how our lives have been affected and continue to be affected. Why won’t Dartmouth do the right thing so we can get out of this situation? It’s horrendous.”

This legal action is not the couple’s first attempt to seek remedy. Vitt held talks with college representatives in May, but the two sides did not reach an agreement.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act itself only provides for a court injunction to force a polluter to clean up its mess, as well as monetary awards to the government to pay for the remediation.

Nevertheless, the Higginses can add common-law claims such as trespass, nuisance and negligence to their suit, allowing them to collect damages for themselves.

Roisman, a high-profile environmental lawyer and Dartmouth graduate, is a new addition to the family’s legal team.

Decades ago, he headed the hazardous waste litigation section of the U.S. Department of Justice. He oversaw, though did not directly participate in, the government’s response to a contamination of the “Love Canal” neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y., that helped spur the passage of the 1980 Superfund Act, he said.

Later, as a member of the pro bono legal group Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, Roisman helped represent residents of Woburn, Mass., in a suit over trichloroethylene (TCE) dumping. The case later became the subject of the best-selling book A Civil Action, as well as a movie starring John Travolta.

Although the college is working to install a “pump-and-treat” system that would siphon away the contaminated water for cleaning, recent events indicate that, in some ways, the mess may have spread beyond Dartmouth’s direct control.

Earlier this month, a second family, the Gorlovs of Hanover Center Road, learned that their well also contained 1,4-dioxane. The substance, they were told, had traveled along a crack in the underlying bedrock to reach their 300-foot-deep artesian well.

The finding was a shock both to them and to college officials, who acknowledged they had not expected the waste to flow nearly a mile from the site, through a hill and in a different direction (northeast) to that of the main plume (northwest).

Jim Wieck, the college contractor heading the water remediation, said there was little way for Dartmouth to track the spread of 1,4-dioxane along bedrock fissures. The best he could do, he said, was conduct regular tests of residents’ wells and take the appropriate steps if the contaminant showed up.

Dartmouth is scheduled to hold an informational meeting on health on Tuesday. The session will take place from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. in Filene Auditorium, located in Moore Hall on campus.

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