The Vapor Trail

Part One: Intruder at the Border: A Toxin Emerges As Health Threat, But Official Action Comes Slowly

By Sarah Brubeck and Maggie Cassidy · June 30, 2013

Hanover — Industrial pollution involving toxic chemicals is often associated with abandoned factories in Rust Belt towns. The last place it might be expected to pose a hazard is near a residential neighborhood and a new school in an Ivy League college town.

But that’s the case in Hanover, where earlier this year officials acknowledged that a cancer-causing chemical had been found at the border of the Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory on Lyme Road. The chemical, trichloroethylene, or TCE, is a solvent that had been used at CRREL for nearly three decades until 1987.

In March, the Army Corps of Engineers began tests to determine if TCE had spread beyond the lab to reach Richmond Middle School across the street, along with Dartmouth College housing to the south and neighboring properties.

No unsafe levels have been detected so far, but officials say the contaminants migrate slowly and will need to be monitored for years to come.

While the news of potential TCE contamination came as a shock to many neighbors, government records examined by the Valley News show that it is far from a new development. 

TCE from the Army lab had leaked into the ground during many years through the 1970s. Despite a much-heralded effort to clean up the chemical from groundwater beneath the lab’s campus, public records show that for the past decade, quieter concerns have swirled about another form of contamination — TCE vapor — traveling through the soil beyond the campus and possibly seeping into buildings where people live, work, study and play.

According to government documents and Dresden School District files:

– A decade ago, in 2003, a Dartmouth real estate official raised concerns about TCE vapor reaching homes to the south of the lab — many of them occupied by Dartmouth staff and their families — and posing a threat to a new cluster of college residences planned on the Rivercrest property to the north. In the years that followed, the real estate official asked for tests to determine if the threat was real.

– Earlier, in 2001, Dartmouth, the town of Hanover and the Dresden School District had begun moving forward with a proposal for the college to provide a piece of land directly across Route 10 from the Army lab for what would become the new Richmond Middle School. The deal, part of a complicated land-swap transaction known as the “tri-party agreement,” was formally approved in 2004.

– Questions about TCE vapor raised by the college apparently never made it to officials planning the school. A 2003 report by a school district consultant concluded that TCE did not pose a threat, but officials acknowledge that the report involved no independent testing and did not examine vapor contamination — an issue that was just beginning to come to the attention of environmental regulators.

– In 2006, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services for the first time issued guidelines regarding TCE vapor contamination. Three years later, the Department of Defense came out with its own guidelines. But it wasn’t until 2010 that formal testing began to determine if vapor had infiltrated work areas at the Army lab and an on-site child care center. And that testing took place over several years — despite TCE levels that prompted the relocation of some Army lab employees from areas deemed a concern.

– It wasn’t until this year that the Army lab alerted neighbors and school district officials to the risk posed by TCE vapor, as testing began in classrooms, homes and businesses near the lab.

Residents in the neighborhoods surrounding the Army lab and Richmond Middle School said in interviews that the shock of hearing about TCE in March has subsided, and many expressed confidence that officials are handling the matter appropriately.

Rob Hawthorne, who has lived on Dresden Road for about 18 months, said he thinks the levels of TCE reported so far are “negligible” when “compared to all the other chemicals we’re exposed to through the course of the day.”

Others remain critical.

Meifang Chu, who lives on Dresden Road near Richmond Middle School and whose daughter attends the school, said she was pleased with school officials’ initial efforts to conduct tests and inform the public.

“But now we don’t hear anything,” Chu, a part-time math and physics lecturer at Dartmouth, said recently as she stood in the doorway of her home. “They don’t come forward with information, they don’t volunteer unless they’re pressured. … The tests right now seem OK, but you don’t want the problem to come up again and deal with it in 10 years’ time.”

And to Lebanon resident Anthony Roisman — a managing partner with the National Legal Scholars Law Firm who has been on the legal team in several cases involving TCE exposure, including a high-profile case in Woburn, Mass., that became the basis for the book and movie A Civil Action — the response has been underwhelming.

Long-term testing must be completed before officials can accurately judge the risk, he said.

“There is no safe level of a human carcinogen. So there is a risk, even if it’s only a small risk, that you get cancer if you’re exposed to trichloroethylene,” Roisman said. “It’s true there are plenty of other things — pumping your own gas — that may expose you to a bigger risk, but this is an additional risk to all those risks you already have … for no reason. There’s no reason people should be exposed to an additional risk.”

Minor Leaks, Major Spills

For decades, TCE was commonly used in a variety of industries. Over time, however, its risks to human health became clear.

In 1987, the Environmental Protection Agency classified TCE as a “probable” human carcinogen, but then withdrew the assessment two years later. In 2011, the EPA again reversed course and warned that TCE was carcinogenic to humans.

TCE has not been used at CRREL since 1987.

Scientists at the Army lab study sea ice, permafrost and environmental factors in the Earth’s coldest regions. For instance, scientists study and develop the best ways to maintain a tunnel in Alaska and a runway in Greenland, both of which have permafrost issues.

Scientists also study questions such as how to detect oil under ice and how to safely clean up oil operations in ice regions.

At the Army lab, TCE was used as a solvent and refrigerant in rooms where the temperature can reach minus 31 degrees Fahrenheit as scientists test tools and materials.

CRREL has about 240 employees at its 28-acre campus north of downtown Hanover, and the facility has 24 “cold rooms” for research. Dartmouth and the lab have an intertwined history going back to the early 1960s, when college President John Sloan Dickey helped lobby to bring the research facility to Hanover. Most recently, Dartmouth sold a nearly 19-acre parcel, which is part of the Army lab campus, to the Army in 2012 for $18.6 million.

Large quantities of TCE — no one knows exactly how much — escaped between 1961 and 1987, according to a 1991 report by Army Capt. Karen Faran. Pipes in the cold rooms leaked, causing puddles of TCE to collect on floors.

But that was nothing compared with what happened in 1970.

Two major TCE spills occurred at the Army lab that year, the first in May, when the refrigeration system was shut down due to a blown gasket, according to Faran’s report. It required eight days to transfer about 6,000 gallons of TCE into another storage tank.

Two months later, an explosion occurred when a welder was working on a partially filled TCE tank. About 3,000 gallons of the chemical spilled into a parking lot on the property’s northeast side. The Hanover Fire Department responded and washed most of the spilled chemical down a storm drain, according to Faran’s report.

Officials didn’t keep records of the amounts of either spill, they say, so it’s impossible to know how much TCE soaked into the soil and the groundwater.

John Truman, a 61-year-old Grafton resident, was on Hanover’s volunteer fire squad in 1970 when the call came in about the explosion. He said he and other firefighters were told that if they felt queasy, they should move away from the area and get some fresh air.

The firefighters were on scene for just a few hours, but Truman remembers the men didn’t wear respirators and took turns giving each other breaks from the fumes.

“I’m wondering if people did any follow-up,” Truman said. “All the volunteer firemen, were we dropped through the cracks and missed? I would have thought that when this was deemed a carcinogen that they would have followed up.”

Peter Kulbacki, current director of Hanover’s public works department, said there are no records that would indicate whether any TCE passed into the town’s sewer system as a result of the 1970 spills, but he said it’s likely. Even if it did, he said, the TCE would have flowed into the Connecticut River. The plant didn’t have the technology to strip TCE out of the water before it was discharged.

After the spills, not all of the TCE was washed away. Some of it lodged in the soil and began to leach into the groundwater beneath the lab.

Two decades later, in 1990, the chemical was found in three samples taken from wells on the lab’s campus. As a precaution, nine water supply wells also were tested on the Vermont side of the river in Norwich. TCE was detected in two of the private wells, less than half a mile from the lab facility.

The discovery prompted the Army to spend about $1.5 million on a permanent water treatment facility that is still in use today.

Of the five production wells on the Army lab’s campus, four remain contaminated with TCE, said Darrell Moore, a project manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The lab gets its drinking water from Hanover’s municipal water system, while water from the ground wells is used for facility operations.

Officials hope that all traces of TCE will eventually leave the groundwater. But that could take a century, Moore said.

School Overcrowding

As officials monitored and cleaned up TCE at the Army lab, community leaders were focused on a different challenge: the burgeoning student population at Hanover High School and Richmond Middle School, two aging structures in the Dresden district that serves Hanover and Norwich. Both schools were located on Lebanon Street, a short walk from Main Street in Hanover.

By early 2001, the Dresden Building Options Committee had drawn up a list of seven possibilities, some calling for selling the two buildings and building new schools elsewhere. But many residents objected to ceding more downtown property to Dartmouth, which was interested in purchasing the parcels.

In a letter dated Aug. 28, 2001, Paul Olsen, then Dartmouth’s director of real estate, wrote to Dresden committee Chairman Steve Woods suggesting that the college could donate a parcel of land it owned across from the Army lab. The letter followed a meeting with school officials earlier that week.

“While the college remains very interested in the possibility of acquiring the Lebanon Street property, we are equally interested in making sure the community finds good long-term options for its schools,” Olsen wrote.

A few months later, in November, the Building Options Committee presented a report to the School Board narrowing the list of options down to two recommendations — one of which was the Lyme Road site.

In bullet points weighing each possibility, the report noted “potential environmental issues to contend with at Lyme Road site (hazardous materials at CRREL or Dartmouth Printing?).”

The school district asked Dartmouth Printing directly about those concerns. The company responded in September that it was in compliance with state environmental regulations.

Questions about the Army lab were later addressed in an environmental site assessment prepared by Lebanon-based Pathways Consulting. The report, which was delivered in October 2003, acknowledged that TCE levels in soil and groundwater at the Army lab exceeded state and federal standards.

However, it concluded “the TCE contamination posed no risk to human health or the environment, and groundwater modeling indicated that there is no off-site migration of TCE contamination.”

Those conclusions helped to green-light the middle school project, school officials said. But that study did not mention the emerging threat of vapor contamination, and relied solely on the Army lab’s own reports.

Dana Arey, Pathways’ vice president and director of environmental services who prepared the 2003 report, said in an email to the Valley News that its findings on TCE were not based on any independent research.

“All references to TCE … stem from reports prepared by (or on behalf of) CRREL,” he said.

He added that the procedure is typical for these types of reports: A “phase 1 environmental site assessment” is “intended to evaluate a property for recognized environmental conditions based on a visual site reconnaissance and reviews of reasonably available local (municipal), state, and federal documents,” he wrote. “Our typical protocol is to research information at the local planning, zoning, and assessor’s offices, at the NHDES and EPA websites, and through environmental reports that the owner may provide.”

The School Board, in turn, relied on Pathways’ conclusions, said former School Board Chairwoman Margaret Cheney, now a Vermont state representative from Norwich.

Jonathan Brush, Dresden’s director of facilities, concurred.

“Yes, why wouldn’t we?” he said. “We’re hiring a consultant because that’s what you do. It’s not your expertise.”

Focusing Elsewhere

At the many public meetings held to discuss plans for the new middle school, there is little evidence of officials or residents worrying about the potential school site’s proximity to the Army lab.

One exception was Kevin Mabey, whose home on nearby Dresden Road abuts the school property. Mabey recalled recently that he raised concerns during public meetings.

“I said I remember because my wife was born and raised here, and she remembers back in the ’70s and ’80s when they had to evacuate the neighborhood because of spills,” he said. “We were assured by the people on the board that those issues had been resolved and there was no concern, the probability of it happening was minimal, and I remember them saying they had an emergency plan in place … and I was like, all right, but still it could happen.”

Mabey, like others, couldn’t recall anybody else raising concerns about the Army lab’s proximity at meetings about the school plan.

“It just seemed odd to me that you would want to put a middle school full of students across the street from a research facility that has a history of leaks,” he said.

In April 2004, the land-swap involving the town, school district and college was finalized. Dartmouth received several small parcels of town-owned property. In return, the college donated the Lyme Road land and kicked in $9.7 million to the school district, which reduced the burden on taxpayers.

Olsen, now retired from Dartmouth, said the arrangement came about as a result of the town, district and college “all working together.”

“Clearly they (school officials) were the ones who had the need to find a solution. We were not needing to do anything,” he said.

“So ultimately it was a matter of their coming to Dartmouth and asking if there was a way (the college) could help with the school with this problem they had.”

Soil Vapor

In 2003, as school officials were seriously considering the Lyme Road site, the Army lab issued a news release declaring: “After extensive investigations, it was determined that the contamination did not pose a threat to human health or the environment and there was no off-site migration of the contaminated groundwater.”

The media took note, too, with the Valley News running a story in April 2003 under the headline “Cleanup of Army Lab Spill Nearing Completion.”

That cleanup effort focused on TCE in the underground water supply. But around that time, some environmental officials were becoming aware of a new, more amorphous, health threat: TCE vapor that could travel under the ground and into buildings — a process known as “vapor intrusion.”

In 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency drafted guidelines for evaluating the presence of TCE and other chemical vapors in buildings. But the draft guidelines were simply that — a draft. The document noted the guidance was a recommendation and “should not be construed in any fashion as mandatory.”

In 2003, the Army lab released a remedial action plan for containing TCE contamination on its property. In April, the Army lab held a public meeting to discuss the plan, but records show that only nine people signed in, mostly employees of the lab or state environmental agency. No one from the Dresden School District signed an attendance sheet, records of the meeting show.

One person in attendance, however, was Tim McNamara, who was project manager at the Dartmouth College Real Estate Office at the time and is today vice chairman of the Lebanon Planning Board. He asked for soil vapor monitoring on the north and south boundaries of the Army lab, according to meeting minutes.

In a recent interview, McNamara said the existence of groundwater contamination made him wonder if there might also be a risk of contamination from TCE vapor. He knew that TCE wasn’t completely soluble in water and could turn into a gas and rise through the soil.

“I don’t think there was much discussion back in 2003 about soil vapor,” McNamara said. “My questions weren’t based on any great scientific knowledge. I just thought if you can smell it, then it must be able to vaporize. Perhaps I was ahead of my time.”

Records with the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services show that McNamara followed up in a letter to CRREL officials, dated May 12, 2003, stating he was concerned about migration of TCE vapor through the soil to adjacent properties.

Dartmouth owns 32 rental houses to the south of the facility that are occupied mostly by college staff members and their families. At the time, Dartmouth also had plans to build a 300-unit housing development to the north of the lab.

“We want to ensure that there is no potential for off-site migration of TCE vapors that would impact either the health of our current or future tenants or result in conditions that would impede our redevelopment plans,” McNamara wrote. “Therefore, we request that CRREL conduct soil vapor monitoring along the common boundaries between CRREL and the Rivercrest and Fletcher/Chandler Circle properties to verify that there is no potential for off-site vapor migration.”

McNamara said in a recent interview that he wasn’t worried about vapor entering buildings. Instead, he was worried about vapor moving laterally through the soil and rising up from utility trenches. He was concerned that construction workers would be exposed to contaminated vapor as they worked on sewer, water and electrical lines.

The Army lab took more than a year to provide the information that McNamara requested. In July 2004 — two months after ground was broken on the new middle school — officials sent McNamara the results of testing for TCE vapor in the soil, according to Department of Environmental Services files.

Ten tests were conducted at the north side of the CRREL property line, as McNamara had requested. The amount of TCE found in the soil vapor varied from undetectable to 2,800 micrograms per cubic meter.(A microgram is one millionth of a gram.)

Robert Minicucci, the former DES project manager for the CRREL site, said that while he doesn’t remember much about the testing, the results nonetheless didn’t alarm him.

“It wasn’t anything that upset me,” Minicucci said.

While no firm regulatory levels had been established at the time, the Army lab tests showed TCE vapor in the soil as much as 13 times the level the 2002 EPA draft guidelines had set as cause for monitoring, records show.

(Today, firm DES guidelines are in place. Under them, the 2004 results showed a TCE vapor level as high as 30 times the threshold level for land beneath a workplace.)

Tests were not conducted at the southern end of the Army lab’s property line near the existing Fletcher-Cedar neighborhood.

McNamara said he doesn’t remember why testing wasn’t done on the southern boundary. A decade ago, he said, his main concern was the Rivercrest property because the 1970 TCE spills had occurred on the northern side of the Army lab property.

When McNamara received the soil gas results, he also wasn’t “terribly concerned,” he recalled. “Nothing caused us to say, ‘Oh my gosh, we should do something over there.’ ”

Nor did officials at the Army lab find cause for alarm.

Although some of the soil vapor results exceeded levels in the EPA’s draft guidelines, no tests were done within 100 feet of the buildings, said Byron Young, who is CRREL’s environmental protection specialist.

Young said he reviewed the 2004 results and saw no reason for an immediate follow-up. The federal guidelines were only in draft form, Young said, and state environmental officials hadn’t flagged any concerns, either.

The 2004 tests were unvalidated, Young said, and he noted that there is a difference between soil gas in the ground, which was tested in 2004, and vapor intrusion — when contaminated gas actually enters a building.

Young said he still doesn’t think the 2004 data is accurate or that it should be used for comparison today.

“We considered the discussion to be closed,” Young said.

“DES and Dartmouth seemed to be satisfied. We saw no reason to take it further.”

A New Middle School

While these conversations took place between Dartmouth and Army lab officials, the college did not notify school officials or the public.

Though he had raised the question of vapor contamination in 2003, McNamara said in a recent email that he didn’t at the time know it would pose a threat.

McNamara was not involved in the transfer of the Dartmouth property to the school district in April 2004. A Dartmouth spokesman said McNamara would have had no reason to communicate his concerns to school officials.

“In 2003 it was a matter of public record that CRREL had experienced TCE spills which it was successfully remediating,” Dartmouth spokesman Justin Anderson said in an email to the Valley News.

“Tim was aware of the spills, and that they had occurred on the northern end of CRREL’s property. Because of the proximity of the spills to the Rivercrest property, Tim had questions about possible vapor intrusion onto Dartmouth land. … Tim was not focused on the possibility of vapor intrusion anywhere else, including the land on which the Richmond School was ultimately built.”

Olsen, the retired Dartmouth real estate official who was involved in the land swap, said he did not recall any concerns about TCE, soil gas or vapor intrusion being raised during the negotiations of the school land deal.

Cheney and fellow former School Board member Woods, who for some time chaired the Dresden Building Options Committee, also said they did not recall any warnings from Dartmouth about TCE vapor.

“I don’t remember it coming up as a concern. I definitely don’t remember that,” said Cheney. “If people had been aware of it, it certainly would have been a major concern.”

Construction began on the new middle school within weeks of the tri-party land-swap agreement in spring 2004, and the building opened to students in the fall of 2005.

The celebration surrounding the opening of Richmond Middle School in 2005 featured all the pomp and circumstance that might be expected for a brand-new school.

The school band played a drum roll, a red ribbon was cut, and Cheney passed out replica yellow hard hats to officials who helped oversee the $43 million project (which included renovating and expanding the Hanover High School building).

Curious parents roamed the halls with green maps to find classrooms. Students marveled at the new cafeteria, the auditorium with stadium seating and the gym that could easily host schoolwide events.

As students and teachers settled into their new surroundings, the science behind TCE and vapor intrusion continued to evolve, guidelines became stricter and testing on the Army lab’s campus proceeded.

Officials would learn that layers of fine silt mixed with clay in the soil act like a cap, forcing the TCE vapor to migrate horizontally until it reaches a more permeable substance — such as a building foundation — through which it can rise.

Five years after the school opened, in 2010, officials would find TCE concentrations in the air inside the Army lab that exceeded the minimum “screening” level set by the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services.

But it would be March of this year — more than three years later — before school officials were notified and testing was undertaken at Richmond Middle School.

Tomorrow: Despite a growing awareness of TCE’s risk, years pass before officials act.

 

Part Two: TCE Testing Process Took Years; Army Lab’s Neighbors Mixed on Pace of Cleanup Effort

By Sarah Brubeck and Maggie Cassidy · July 1, 2013

Hanover — In 2006, a year after Richmond Middle School opened, state environmental officials confirmed what a Dartmouth College official had suspected years before: Vapor from trichloroethylene, a cancer-causing solvent known as TCE, might pose a threat to the health of people exposed to it.

That year, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services issued safety guidelines to address TCE vapor in the ground and indoor air, calling for heightened monitoring and remediation in cases where the vapor exceeded certain thresholds.

Around the same time, Tim McNamara, Dartmouth’s associate director of real estate, again expressed concern about TCE soil vapor concentrations at the Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory. Dartmouth hoped to start construction of a new housing development called Rivercrest to the north of the Army lab, which is also located next to a college housing complex and across Lyme Road from the middle school.

TCE had been used as a solvent and a refrigerant at the Army lab from 1961 to 1987. But two major spills in 1970 caused the chemical to soak into the soil and groundwater. While the Army lab had installed a water treatment facility in the early 1990s, the idea that vapor from the solvent could travel through the soil and enter buildings above was just coming to officials’ attention in the early 2000s.

But a response was slow in developing, according to government records examined by the Valley News. According to those records:

– Preliminary testing for TCE vapor at the Army lab — the source of the contamination — did not begin until 2008, two years after the state’s guidelines were issued.

– Full testing did not begin until 2010, and it was not until 2011 that a day care center located on the lab’s campus was tested for the presence of TCE vapor. The test showed elevated levels of the chemical in the center’s basement and, to a lesser degree, on the main floor.

– Despite the growing awareness of a potential TCE problem spreading toward the borders of the lab’s 28-acre campus, its neighbors along Route 10 — residential neighborhoods, businesses and the 400 -student middle school — weren’t notified until March 2013, when they learned their buildings would be tested.

Testing began on the lab’s campus as early as March 2010, and TCE levels were high enough to prompt relocation of some employees and the installation of a ventilation system at the day care center in October 2011.

Tests results thus far at Richmond Middle School, Dartmouth housing and other adjacent properties show that unsafe levels of TCE vapor have not reached those locations, officials say.

However, the vapor has migrated slowly and officials say monitoring will need to continue for years. As a preventive measure, Dartmouth is installing ventilation systems under 32 residential properties it owns south of CRREL.

Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin expressed frustration that the town hasn’t always been informed in a timely way about TCE testing and remediation efforts at the Army lab. Griffin said she heard that testing was being expanded to the middle school this spring only because the town’s health officer was copied on a letter from the state Department of Environmental Services to CRREL — and Griffin happens to be the health officer.

“They deal with their own federal regulatory realm and thinking of the local host communities is an afterthought,” Griffin said of Army lab officials. “We should be informed. They’re embedded in a neighborhood, whether they like it or not.”

(Darrell Moore, project manager with the Army Corps of Engineers, said he had been sending emails to Jonathan Edwards, who was Hanover’s health officer, but didn’t know that Edwards had retired in December. Moore said he then began communicating with another town employee.)

Bert Davis, the director of the Army lab, said he wasn’t trying to hold information back, but said he follows the lead of experts from the Army Corps of Engineers New England District and other organizations, including the Department of Environmental Services and the Army Environmental Command.

“CRREL goes on the recommendations of that team about community outreach and so forth,” Davis said. “Early on in the TCE thing, CRREL directors have learned that it’s better to follow the lead of the team of experts rather than independently communicating in our own way.”

State regulators have also defended the pace of TCE testing and remediation.

“Since we’ve taken this project over, I think the project has moved significantly forward,” said Scott Hilton, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services project manager who is overseeing the TCE cleanup. “I know people think everything happens in a snap of a finger, but in the real world, it doesn’t happen that way.”

State and Army lab officials say the 2006 guidelines marked the beginning of a slow process that required lab officials to secure federal funding, schedule testing and then process the results. Hilton said officials and regulators had to work their way outward from the center of the contamination site, expanding the circle of testing only after they had found contamination. The federal lab has spent $2.4 million on vapor intrusion testing and remediation since 2010.

“You can’t sample the whole town without the justification because you could easily be accused of wasting taxpayer dollars,” Hilton said.

Michael Mundy, who owns Hanover Family Chiropractic next door to the lab, said he’s been comforted by the thorough testing for TCE within his building and said he’s glad that underground ventilation systems can be installed if potentially unsafe amounts of TCE are found.

“I have a neighbor that I feel is trying to do the right thing,” the chiropractor said.

New Vapor Intrusion Guidance

In 2006, shortly after the state issued its vapor intrusion guidelines, Dartmouth’s McNamara placed a call to Robert Minicucci, then the state Department of Environmental Services official responsible for monitoring TCE cleanup at the Army lab.

“Tim expressed a concern about past soil vapor concentrations, at least some of which exceed the new soil vapor (i.e., indoor air quality) standards,” according to Minicucci’s notes in a Department of Environmental Services file.

McNamara’s call came as he and other Dartmouth officials were planning to build a new residential community north of the Army lab. There was already another such community, the 32-unit Fletcher-Cedar neighborhood, to the south.

Despite McNamara’s questions in 2006, a preliminary test for vapor intrusion wasn’t conducted until 2008, and the first formal round of testing didn’t start until March 2010.

Minicucci was the project manager in the early 2000s and said he recalls McNamara’s questions and the subsequent testing for TCE vapor, but said for him it was “nothing of real concern.”

Minicucci said the Department of Environmental Services is simply an oversight organization. At the time, Minicucci said, he was trying to persuade lab officials to eliminate the source of the contamination in the soil.

“I suppose I wish I could have done more,” Minicucci said in an interview. “But you do what you can with the information you have, and if new information comes up, you do the best you can. The important thing is protecting human health and the environment.”

Hilton took over as the Department of Environmental Services project manager in 2008, replacing Minicucci. As he had while overseeing other sites, Hilton pressed for TCE vapor testing at the Army lab — a position reinforced when the Department of Defense came out with its own vapor intrusion guidelines in 2009.

Nonetheless, the first round of testing didn’t get under way until March 2010. Hilton said it took time to get up to speed on contamination at the lab. And once Hilton and the Army lab agreed that testing was needed, they had to secure funding from the Army Environmental Command.

Byron Young, the Army lab’s environmental protection specialist, said when he started educating himself about vapor intrusion in 2006, he thought, “there’s something to this.”

But Young didn’t do his first test until 2008. He said it wasn’t until about July 2006 that he started looking into vapor intrusion, and by then, the federal fiscal year was almost over (it ends in September). It took time to request the necessary funds and decide where he wanted to test.

“That’s when I said, ‘Let me take a cursory look at this and see if there’s anything to worry about,’ ” Young said. Young hired a contractor to set up a canister to test the air inside one office. Even though the test found levels below the threshold for action, Young said, he decided to press ahead with more testing.

“I was concerned,” Young said. “I don’t want to see anybody in an environment that is hurtful to them.”

Those tests didn’t occur until 2010. Young said it took time to get funding secured, decide on the scope of work and find a contractor to conduct a “full-blown investigation.”

“The time frame between 2008 and 2010 sounds like a long time, but in government, it’s not,” Young said.

At Dartmouth, meanwhile, the college’s plans for its new Rivercrest development were put on hold after the recession hit in 2008. McNamara said recently that he wasn’t concerned about the existing housing complex to the south, given that it was far enough away from the TCE contamination zone in the northern part of the Army lab complex.

However, in a 2003 letter to Army lab officials, McNamara wrote, “As you know, the College operates rental housing projects for our employees and students in both the Rivercrest (immediately to the north of CRREL) and Fletcher Circle/Chandler Circle (immediately to the south of CRREL) neighborhoods. We want to ensure that both the short-term and long-term safety of the residents of these neighborhoods is ensured.”

In a recent interview, McNamara said that when the Rivercrest project was put on hold, he saw no need to pursue further testing.

“If the project had gone forward, that issue would have been brought up again to make sure it was resolved,” he said.

A Wake-up Call

Since 1990, the federal government has spent approximately $16 million — including the $2.4 million spent on vapor intrusion testing — to clean up TCE contamination at the Army lab, said Laurie Haines, the Army Environmental Command’s environmental restoration manager for the site.

In March 2010, TCE vapor was detected in six locations in the main laboratory building at concentrations three to six times greater than the threshold set by the Department of Environmental Services for workplaces. TCE vapor was also found exceeding threshold levels in other lab buildings. Under the guidelines, the threshold levels, or “screening levels,” mean that further testing or remediation should be undertaken. However, there are no specified levels that indicate that a building should be evacuated.

Davis took over as director of the Army lab in 2006. He said he knew about the TCE issue but thought the problem had been dealt with after the groundwater treatment system was installed. The 2010 tests showing high levels of TCE vapor under and inside the lab’s buildings shook him.

“When I saw the measurements and I saw the concentrations … it was a surprise and a wake-up for all of us,” Davis said.

Testing was expanded to other lab buildings in 2011, including the Cradle and Crayon day care center, where lab employees and other parents leave their children during the workday. The tests found TCE levels in the basement beneath the child care center at least four times above the threshold level. Children don’t spend time in the basement, but the testing also found slightly elevated levels on the main floor where children are most of the day.

That was enough to prompt lab officials to install a “sub-slab depressurization system” — similar to those used to vent radon gas from beneath homes — under the child care center building. The venting system worked. Subsequent testing found TCE levels had fallen to near-negligible levels.

Davis himself used the on-site day care center for his two daughters. Although the levels found on the main floor were just slightly above the state threshold, “that was the one that wrenched my gut,” Davis said. “Getting something where the kids and parents are, that was a grim hour for me until I sat down with the experts.”

But Davis said he felt better when he learned about the effectiveness of the ventilation system. With the ventilation system in operation, he said, “it’s about as clean as the air outside.”

In February 2013, the Department of Environmental Services updated its health warning for TCE and said that women exposed to the chemical face an increased risk for fetal cardiac malformation during the first trimester of pregnancy. The guidance said that if TCE in the air exceeds a certain level, women of child-bearing age should be relocated.

The new revised warning didn’t surprise Army lab officials. They had already learned about the latest research, and as a precautionary measure relocated six employees from the main laboratory basement and to areas with acceptable indoor air prior to November 2012.

“I believe it shows very responsive actions by DES,” said Hilton about the new revised warning.

Community Questions Testing

Through 2012 and into this year, testing continued on the Army lab property, moving out from the original site of the TCE contamination to the property’s boundaries.

Throughout 2012, TCE vapor had been detected at those boundaries and officials announced in March of this year that Richmond Middle School and neighboring businesses and Dartmouth-owned homes would require testing.

The test results coming back from Richmond Middle School and other abutters have left neighbors and officials at the Army lab and the Department of Environmental Services relieved.

In almost every case, the amount of TCE detected in the indoor air was at or below the threshold level.

Anita Hamalainen, who lives at the college’s Fletcher-Cedar complex with her husband and three children, said there was a panic when neighbors were first told about the TCE testing. In March, five residents asked to move.

“It was terrifying,” Hamalainen said. “When we first moved in, the babies were 3 months old, so thinking that they spent the first two years of their life in a toxic home was terrifying.”

In recent months, Dartmouth has tested all 32 homes for TCE and most of the tests didn’t detect any traces of the chemical. For residents, that brought a bit of calm.

Five homes were tested in the Fletcher-Cedar neighborhood by the Army Corps of Engineers, and TCE vapor levels ranged from undetectable to slightly above the Department of Environmental Services’ residential screening level of 0.4 micrograms per cubic meter: A reading of 0.42 micrograms per cubic meter was found in the basement of one of the Cedar Drive homes. (A microgram is one-millionth of a gram.)

“We live in a toxic world and we’re all OK with it until somebody actually comes into your house and shows you exactly what is going on in it,” Hamalainen said. “But most people don’t have to have it in their face.”

Many residents of Dresden Road, which runs behind Richmond Middle School, said recently they had few concerns about the TCE contamination.

The sentiment was the same among parents who have children at Cradle and Crayon, the child care center at the Army lab.

Research mechanical engineer Zoe Courville has worked at CRREL for nine years and has sent her son, Teague Fenzel, to Cradle and Crayon since he was 3 months old. Courville has worked in the lab’s cold rooms and knew the history of TCE.

“I was working and pregnant and I know the levels are low enough that it’s not a concern,” Courville said. “My son was born healthy.”

Courville said she researched TCE and vapor intrusion and attended several staff meetings. She also talked with Davis, the director of the Army lab, who shared his knowledge of the testing.

“We’re all researchers and scientists so we’re all skeptical until we research things ourselves,” Courville said.

Bri Schreiner, who sends her 2-year-old daughter to Cradle and Crayon, said she hadn’t heard about the testing until she read recent news accounts about the process at Richmond Middle School. She immediately emailed the director of the child care center.

Schreiner said she quickly became comfortable with the testing after seeing the levels that were found in the child care center and after receiving a quick response from Cradle and Crayon’s director.

“Anywhere we live there will be risks. Anywhere we send our kids there will be risks,” Schreiner said. “That’s just life and I have to choose my battles.”

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