Pollution Law Watch


Posted in Contamination, TCE, Vapor Intrusion

For the last 17 years, I and a team of lawyers have been representing families threatened by TCE contamination in their water supply, in the groundwater underneath their homes, and in the air inside their homes (called “vapor intrusion”).  Recent reports in the media unfortunately describe how TCE, disposed of years ago in Nonantum, Massachusetts has seeped into the groundwater about 60 feet below the surface, and, after turning into gas (‘vapor”), has risen back up through the soil and intruded into the breathing space of area homes.

Having known many hundreds of families over the years who were horrified to receive such news about TCE contamination in their homes and communities, my heart goes out to the families of Nonantum.  I know many of them are scared—“What can this chemical do to me and my family?” they will ask.  They have important questions that deserve answers such as: “How long has this contamination been in my neighborhood, and in my home, and who is responsible?” And they might well be angry—“Why didn’t someone in government protect us from this, or at least warn us that this could happen?”

With exactly these anxieties in mind, I want to provide some information to the people of Nonantum who are dealing with this, so they might understand what is going on, and how better to protect themselves.  Here are some important things I have learned over the years:

  • TCE is dangerous.  Give exposure over a significant period of time, TCE can cause cancer, and a variety of other serious health conditions. You already have been told so, it appears, but what you particularly need to know is that TCE is especially dangerous for children.  (See my guide to the dangers of TCE: http://www.thepollutionlawyers.com/?p=8078 ) This is because children’s immune systems are not yet fully formed, and so do not process and eliminate toxins like TCE as efficiently as adults’ do.  I do not offer you this information to alarm you, only to suggest that the dangers of TCE is the reason why protection against the presence, or even possible presence, of TCE in your home is an urgent matter.
  • There is no “safe” level of TCE. While it is certainly true that lower levels of TCE are less dangerous than higher levels of TCE, those who tell you that there is some level of TCE that cannot harm your family, or that you should be willing to tolerate, are usually the people who have to pay to clean it up. Or sometimes you find that government regulators adopt this kind of thinking, believing it is their job to provide worried families with false assurances of safety.  The truth is that TCE was typically used in factories to clean nasty dirt and grime off of parts in the manufacturing process.  If you ever saw how well TCE does its job, you will understand immediately why it does not belong in the human body…..in any concentration
  • TCE vapor intrusion happens far more easily than you might imagine.  TCE is what is referred to as a “volatile” chemical.  That means, simply, that under the right circumstances, it easily turns into a gas, and then does what gasses do, i.e., it rises.  When the TCE in the groundwater in Nonantum turns into a gas form, as it already has and continues to do, it begins to rise back up through the soil—about 60 feet from groundwater to the basement floors of the homes up above it in Nonantum.  Then, because it is a gas, the TCE can slip (“intrude”) into a home fairly easily through even very tiny cracks in a basement floor, for example, or openings in the basement floor designed for sumps.  It doesn’t need much.
  • TCE isn’t necessarily confined to the basement.  It’s certainly true that the basement areas in Nonantum are the most vulnerable, because they are closest to the contaminated groundwater that is the source of the problem.  But in my cases I have seen TCE detected in the living areas above the basements, and even in the third stories of some homes, because heating and air conditioning piping served as conduits that carried TCE vapor into those areas.  Testing for TCE vapors should therefore be done on all levels of a home.  (More on this below.)
  • Demand urgency.  Environmental investigations into how far a chemical has spread, and the clean-up of the chemical, can take many years, even decades. How long it takes has a lot to do with the amount of money available to pay for this work, of course, but can also be significantly influenced by the competence of the governmental agency managing the work, the political clout of the polluter–who always wants things to move slowly–and the noisiness of the families most affected.  In my experience, a concerned, informed, noisy-when-necessary group of impacted families can keep the pressure on, and dramatically reduce the length of time these processes take. And they can go a long way toward counter-acting any political clout that the polluter may wield, that can be used to slow the process down, or cut corners to save the polluter money in cleaning up the problem it caused.  Rule of thumb:  families threatened by the contamination want to keep the issue on the front page of the local paper; once it has moved off the front page, everything that you need done quickly will slow down to a crawl.
  • Get your home tested, and tell your neighbors to. Some people resist testing for TCE vapor in their homes because they believe that, if it is found thereit will damage their property value.  While I understand the concern for property values, all homes within, and even near, an area known to be contaminated are going to be damaged, at least for a while.  So, you’re not protecting your property value by refusing the testing.  But you are certainly depriving government regulators of information that may be very important to determining how serious and widespread of a problem this is, and, worst of all, may be depriving your family of the information it needs to protect itself.  For example, if TCE is in your home, you need to know it so that you can get a “vapor mitigation system” installed, and perhaps take other precautions, as well.
  • Beware “false negatives”,and the results of one-time testing.  Lots of testing is necessary to figure out where the TCE really is, and how far it has spread, etc.   A common mistake that governmental regulators make–often because they are listening to the polluter paying for the testing and clean-up, who does not want to test as thoroughly as you do–is they insist on too little testing.  I hope that is not happening in Nonantum.  The simple but critical point here is this:  gas is elusive.  It moves.  It may not be found in a home during testing on Tuesday, but appear in that same home in high concentrations by Friday. I have seen high concentrations of TCE vapor detected in one part of a home, but no concentration at all a few feet away, a few minutes later.  Likewise, I have seen TCE vapor found inside a home during a first test, but not during the second test a few days later; and high TCE concentrations found in a home on the north side of the street, but not detected in the home right across the street.  All of this simply means that a one-time, single location test finding no TCE does not mean that there is no TCE in that home, and never will be.  Therefore, because of the elusive, unpredictable movement of TCE vapor, competent testing should be undertaken on multiple occasions over the course of a year–both within the home where no TCE was previously found, as well as in the neighborhood–and during different weather conditions.  For example, TCE is less likely to be found in a home after a significant rainfall, because the rainwater percolates down through the soil, and tends to form at least a temporary barrier for TCE moving up through the soil during those times.  Also, as mentioned above, while the home’s basement is most vulnerable, TCE can migrate to other levels of the home, as well, and so they should be tested, too.
  • If any level of TCE at all is found in a home, it should have a TCE “vapor mitigation system” installed. As mentioned above, the levels of TCE vapor in a home are typically not static.  They fluctuate, and can change rapidly and significantly. Therefore, if any level of TCE in vapor is found in any location within the home even during just one test, that home should be considered to be threatened by high levels of vapor contamination, and protected against them.
  • Clean up the groundwater! Another mistake that gets made in these types of situations is that, unbelievably, the source of the vapor intrusion–the TCE-contaminated groundwater–gets ignored.  In other words, what sometimes happens is that once “vapor mitigation systems”–designed to pipe any TCE-contaminated air away from the home–get installed, government regulators, local politicians and sometimes even affected families think the crisis is over, and everything is fine.  But it’s not fine.  First of all, while many “vapor mitigation systems” do their job very well, none are perfect.  Even for the best system, some TCE will slip through. Also, like any machine, the systems need maintenance and can break down.  Most important: in Nonantum, you have very high concentrations of TCE–up to a whopping and very dangerous 52,000 micrograms per liter–that have been detected in groundwater right underneath or near the homes.  Untreated, concentrations like that are not going away any time soon, and will continue to threaten to vaporize, and head toward the breathing space of homes above it.  Bottom line:  it is only when the TCE has been removed from the groundwater that the problem is solved, and the threat is gone.
  • You deserve timely and complete information.   For example, you deserve to know exactly why Massachusetts’ Department of Environmental Protection sent letters to Northrup Grumman and One Nevada Realty, informing them that they are potentially liable for the contamination.  What does DEP believe these companies did to potentially cause, or otherwise be responsible for, the contamination?  You also deserve to know whether anyone other than you—the taxpayer—is paying for investigation and clean-up.  This is important to know because, one, if there is a financially viable company responsible for the contamination, it is not fair that you should have to pay to fix it.  Also, two, as we all know, government has very limited funds to do much these days, and competent investigations and clean-ups for problems like this can cost literally millions of dollars.  I mean no disrespect to Nonantum when I predict that Nonantum doesn’t have that kind of money laying around.  Finally, you deserve to know what the plan and timeline are for finalization of the investigation, and cleanup of the TCE-contaminated groundwater.  If there is no plan, you must demand one. And if there is no timeline, then there really isn’t a plan.

I hope this information helps.  I wish all the families of Nonantum the very best in finding the truth about the extent of this problem; how it happened; who caused it; protection against it; and a thorough clean-up.