Special Report: Buried Answers
ELMIRA, N.Y. (WENY) -- As back to school season picks up in New York, contamination cleanup at Elmira High School has remained active over the summer months. But where did this all begin? Our journey first takes us to the Chemung Valley History Museum, where Archivist Rachel Dworkin helps us dive deep into the past.
"It was mostly farmland until the year 109 when the Willys-Morrow company built their plant there. So they originally manufactured parts for the Willys-Morrow and Overland (Co.) cars. So it was things like brakes, and other gears and other car components," Dworkin explains.
During WWI, the plant also made engines for "Curtiss Jenny" (JN-4) airplanes before it went out of business in 1934. Years went by with the site mostly unused, until the Elmira Industrial Corporation, comprised of businessmen who were seeking to revamp the land, acquired it.
"The following year, they were able to bring Remington Rand which manufactured typewriters and other office equipment, and during WWII they manufactured the Norden Bombsight and some other war production materials and then they went out of business in 1972," says Dworkin.
At the time, Remington Rand became the single largest employer in the area, with thousands of workers across the massive plant.
"I mean they were doing a lot of things with heavy metals and with um oils and all sorts of stuff that they weren't really thinking about having a long term impact and you know they didn't know the health risk so they were dumping it," explains Dworkin.
The Elmira School District purchased a portion of the former Remington Rand site in 1977, constructing the building for the first group of students who made up the '79 - '80 class.
"In the late 80's, early 90's DEC starting doing some investigatory work offsite as we found some oil seeps in some of the areas and cleaned that up. And we had other information that came to light that showed us that there might be some issues within the area," says Sean Mahar, Chief of Staff for New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
"Our son was diagnosed with testicular cancer in October of '97 --- he graduated from Southside in June of '97, got well and moved on with life. But in early 2000, my wife was a nurse at St. Joe's....she came home and she said, 'Geeze I was talking with some folks and they said that 13 kids have been diagnosed with cancer since '97'" says Andy Patros, current member of a community-based Steering Committee.
During the early 2000's, Patros became more involved in seeking more information surrounding the reported contamination. It was around that time concerns regarding the health effects of the contamination
"Answers to questions lead to more questions," Patros says.
As cleanup work steadily progresses at Elmira High School, questions surrounding any residual health impacts from possible past exposure are now being revisited. DEC's prior investigation work at the turn of the century, toxins found below ground included poly-chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and other hazardous materials.
"The school district, in conjunction with the New York State DOH [Dept. of Health] did reach out to approximately 8,100 - 8,200 former students; students who went there and graduated since '79," Patros explains of the first health inquiry period.
"Based on everything we saw there, there was an isolated elevation of testicular cancer in a very small group of the population. When we did additional evaluation of the individual medical records and other age groups, there was no need to do additional follow up. It turned out to be not that unusual," says Justin Deming, Public Health Specialist with NYS DOH.
"The exposure is the critical piece of that, so here historically we have not seen elevated levels of exposure that we would expect to result in any sort of health outcome from people on the property," Deming adds.
Recent remediation, which involves digging up and replacing the toxic soil with fresh materials, became the new focus after old clues about the nature of the site came to light.
"There was some thought that they had been lost in the flood of the 1970's but a County Dept. of Health official happened to find these maps in a box in a basement somewhere back around 2014," says Mahar.
"As the district really began to explore next steps with capital projects with taking care of tennis courts and parking lots, doing a lot of work outside of the building, the DEC and the Dept. of Health became much more involved so that we could coincide timelines of cleanup with proposed capital work," says Hillary Austin, Superintendent of Schools for the Elmira City School District.
In 2018, community stakeholders created a Steering Committee to help maintain the efforts of seeking more health information. The group called for a meeting with the DOH this past February, and now, a new survey is being developed. This time, the target group is focused on current and former faculty and staff.
"We would like to see the DOH cover as many health afflictions, health-related areas, as possible, and let's get the information. Let's do the reachout to the people, let's get the information and go from there," Patros says.
There is a DEC availability session planned for this fall, where officials will talk about the remediation work completed over the summer. DEC and School District officials are emphasizing the grounds are safe for students, faculty, and staff, with no risk of exposure.
There is a dedicated website from the DEC with associated documents, presentations, and newsletters available. That link can be found here: https://www.dec.ny.gov/chemical/102390.html