Soil holds toxic se­crets from an in­dus­trial past

Greenwich Time (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - BOB HOR­TON

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?

Ken Blevins / As­so­ci­ated Press

Flood waters from the Neuse River cover the area in Kin­ston, N.C., on Mon­day, a week af­ter Hur­ri­cane Florence.

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