Soil holds toxic secrets from an industrial past
Armstrong Court. Greenwich High School. Byram Park, home of Byram Beach on Long Island Sound. Greenwich Harbor. Western Middle School. The old town dump.
Those are just the most notable areas of Greenwich where the soil is contaminated by thousands of tons of coal ash trucked away from the old New Haven Railroad Power Plant in Cos Cob, now the site of a park on the west bank of the Mianus River. There are hundreds of other, smaller contaminated sites as well, some of them public ball fields.
This is not news to anyone who’s paid any attention to town affairs over the last two decades. But I thought about them again this very rainy week, and after reading and watching news coverage of the dramatic environmental impact of Hurricane Florence on North Carolina.
Florence dumped more than 30 inches of rain across a good portion of the Tar Heel state, turning interstate highways into rivers and breaching dams that held back tens of millions of gallons of hog manure. It is tough to get one’s mind around just how much pig poop that is; even more confounding to contemplate the massive clean-up required. But Florence also
breached levees that held tons and tons of coal ash. That poisonous mix is now flowing through rivers and streams and affecting drinking water supplies.
Greenwich has no pig farms, at least none that I know. The town does, however, share a toxic legacy with North Carolina and other states: Tons of coal ash spread across wide swaths of land, the residue of an era when coal was king and the primary fuel for generating electricity and powering all manner of industrial activity.
Most of the coal ash in Greenwich came from the Cos Cob power plant. Anyone growing up in Riverside in the 1950s and ’60s remembers days when coal ash traced a brown trail across the sky, riding northwest winds over the water.
A mountain of ash grew next to the power plant for decades, and eventually the railroad needed to find other dump sites. Not yet knowing of coal ash’s poisons, the material was used as fill in building sites across Greenwich, including Ten Acre Swamp, the piece of land off Hillside Drive and East Putnam Avenue on which the town later built Greenwich High School.
But the environmental movement of the 1970s led to a deeper concern over what man was doing to his environment, and coal ash turned out to be one of the most widespread toxic materials. It is a toxic brew that can include lead, mercury, arsenic, chromium, cadmium, selenium and too many other-iums to list here. Some of those substances are carcinogens; others damage human organs and cause serious medical conditions. (For a good itemization and description of toxins in coal ash, visit earthjustice.org, and search for “Harm to Health from Breathing and Ingesting Coal Ash Toxicants.”)
Discovery of the detrimental health effects of coal ash did not stop disposal of it at Ten Acre Swamp, even after it had become GHS. There are photos from construction there in 2005 that indicate the use of coal ash as fill during the renovation of Cardinal Stadium’s field. Documentation exists of dumping at many other public spaces in Greenwich — and much of it is still present on the original power plant site.
And, of course, coal ash does not stay in place once it is dumped. Surface water and underground streams spread the dangerous material. This week’s substantial rain and significant flooding is not just a reminder that Greenwich’s storm water drainage system is antiquated and inadequate; it is also a reminder of the powerful force of moving water and its ability to spread toxic material along a much bigger area than the original dump sites.
Greenwich has for decades turned a blind eye to the health risks of coal ash and contaminated soil and riverbeds. As I wrote at the beginning of this column, coal ash and soil contamination are old stories in Greenwich. Equally as old a story is the refusal by town government to make any proactive efforts to identify and remediate contaminated sites, even those regularly used by school children and adults
But perhaps the many new RTM members elected last year will start to take an interest in the town’s laissezfaire attitude toward cleaning up dirty dirt. First Selectman Peter Tesei has described townwide testing for toxic soil as a “fool’s errand.” Not long after he made that comment during the 2015 campaign, Western Middle School fields were closed because tests revealed dangerous levels of various toxins from coal ash. The tests were done privately at the request of an RTM member. Town government’s first reaction was to challenge the test results and refer the professional who took the tests to the state Board of Health for disciplinary action.
Then they did close the playing fields. How many more thousands of people will be exposed to the health threats posed by coal ash before the town takes substantive action?
Flood waters from the Neuse River cover the area in Kinston, N.C., on Monday, a week after Hurricane Florence.