Thursday, April 9, 2015

Toxic solvents underneath IBM building defy cleanup

Buildings on contaminated soil may
expose workers to harmful chemicals
through soil vapor intrusion: Experts.
ENDICOTT – After 35 years, IBM Corp. contractors have stanched the flow of industrial solvents into a commercial and residential district in the heart of the village, but they have yet to find a solution for the source of the problem at the company's former flagship manufacturing plant.

Officials recently reported that efforts to intercept and remove the subterranean flow of hazardous chemicals coming from the industrial complex — now owned by Huron Real Estate Associates — have been successful.

Consequently, health risks to a nearby neighborhood have been eliminated.

Yet they have no remedy for a concentrated pool of solvents directly under the manufacturing site, where at least 1,500 people still work.

It may take years before a proven remedy is found, according to Alex Czuhanich, an engineering geologist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, although the agency has no timetable for the project.

The pollution, discovered in 1979, includes trichloroethylene (TCE) and other solvents used as industrial degreasers that have been linked to maladies ranging from cancer to birth defects.

IBM used vast quantities of the solvents to manufacture printed circuit boards during the company's heyday from the 1950s through the 1970s.

The contaminated hot spot — known as "the source area" on DEC records — lies under an area the size of eight village blocks, and it was once bustling with the delivery, handling, storage, transport and liberal use of solvents.

The source area encompasses a railroad corridor where chemicals arrived in bulk, loading docks where they were handled, and a network of tanks and pipelines that stored and transported virgin chemicals and chemical waste to and from various manufacturing lines throughout the campus, according to DEC records.

Situated over and near the source area, and blocking access to cleanup, are dozens of buildings, most of them massive, bunker-like, cement structures built during the Cold War era and some well before.

The contaminated ground is dense with tunnels, boiler rooms, tank rooms, crawl spaces, cables, pipes and conduits.

"There is just so much infrastructure there," Czuhanich said. "Trying to get anything in there (to remedy the problem) is difficult, at best."

To date, nearly 70,000 gallons of solvent — more than 40 tons — have been pumped from the ground. Officials don't know how much is left, according to DEC spokesman Peter Constantakes.

Court records filed by attorneys representing residents suing IBM for damages from the pollution put the solvent pool up to 1 million gallons "that had apparently collected over many years from leaking pipes and tanks."

Reluctance by IBM and the DEC to publicly discuss the source area has added to uncertainty about its status. IBM spokesman Todd Martin did not reply to phone calls or written inquires on the subject.

Safety debated

IBM sold the plant in 2002 to Huron Real Estate Associates, which now rents space to BAE Systems Electronics, i3 Electronics (formerly Endicott Interconnect), Binghamton University and other smaller firms that collectively employ between 1,500 and 2,000 workers.

TCE, the main contaminant under the campus, is not commonly used in bulk by industry in the U.S. anymore, though it is a pervasive contaminant at many Cold War-era industrial and military sites throughout the country.

In addition to the former IBM site, notorious TCE legacy sites in the Southern Tier include the CAE Electronics site in Hillcrest, and the Morse Industrial site in Tompkins County, both linked to contamination of nearby residential neighborhoods.

The TCE problem is as stubborn as it is complex. TCE is one of a class of chemicals that tend to be heavier than water, so they sink through the water table and adhere stubbornly to soil particles.

They also give off toxic fumes that rise from the ground, ending up in basements, crawl spaces and — ultimately — circulating into living spaces through a process known as vapor intrusion.

There is no national standard to limit TCE exposure in air, although there has been a political push to develop one since the federal Environmental Protection Agency determined in 2011 that the chemical was a carcinogen and a "non-cancer health hazard."

Just how much exposure presents a risk remains a controversial topic. Levels that might not affect one person could make another seriously ill. Pregnant women are particularly vulnerable.

According to the latest EPA assessment — challenged by the chemical industry — risks for non-cancer illnesses, such as birth defects, from short-term TCE exposure in residential settings are found to increase statistically at levels at or above 2 micrograms per cubic meter.

The agency has set the threshold for risks from short-term exposure in an industrial setting at 7, based on the assumption that people spend less time at work than in their homes.

Cancer risks become discernible for chronic exposure — the type people might experience in homes — at levels beginning at 0.43 micrograms, according to an EPA assessment.

New York state has set a broad guideline of 5 for residential and commercial exposure. But the agency often requires action at levels below the threshold when feasible.

Feasibility remains the issue at the Huron campus. Indoor air samples at 42 buildings collected in 2005 — the last time the state oversaw testing — ranged from zero to 17 micrograms per cubic meter in some areas that tended to be occupied. Levels were much higher in other areas — often registering between 50 and 300 micrograms in tunnels and tank rooms below Building 18, for example.

Concentrations in the soil directly below the buildings often exceeded 10,000 and sometimes were over 100,000 micrograms.

In 2005, the state health department determined that the TCE levels at the Huron campus present a "low" health risk to people working there, according to a report at the time. That means state health officials "do not expect to be able to associate health effects" from exposure.

Health department spokesman Jeffrey Hammond said the guideline remains "under review" as more information comes to light "to ensure that previous decisions and recommendations continue to protect public health."

In 2005, a health department study found elevated rates of testicular and kidney cancers, and birth defects that were "statistically significant" in an area affected by solvent pollution in the area south of the former IBM plant, and several blocks to the southwest of the plant polluted by an undetermined source. (The area has since been cleaned by the IBM remediation efforts.)

The results of a study by NIOSH and the health department evaluating birth outcomes of women who worked at the plant is expected to be released later this year.
By the numbers
• 35: Number of years IBM has been cleaning the pollution.
• 70,000: Number of gallons of concentrated chemicals removed so far.
• 1,500: Approximate number of employees who work at the site.
• 470: Number of structures off-site that have been fitted with vent systems to divert toxic fumes.
• 5: Safety threshold, in micrograms per cubic meter, for TCE exposure in air in New York state.
• 2: Level, in micrograms per cubic meter, at which risks associated with short-term TCE exposure increase statistically.
Source: PressConnects; This article has been edited for length.

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