Dirty Energy Ash Blamed for Toxic Soil in Greenwich, CT

- by Bill Cummings, December 28, 2014, CT Post

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"368","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","style":"width: 250px; height: 188px; margin: 3px 10px; float: left;"}}]]The discovery of PCBs and other contaminants at Greenwich High School two years ago is only part of a mosaic of cancer-causing toxics that have cropped up at various sites around one of the nation's wealthiest, most exclusive communities.

Pollutants have now been confirmed at three other locations in Greenwich, providing new and expanding evidence of a decades-old trail of ash stretching from the high school to the west, down along both sides of the Interstate 95 corridor and directly into Long Island Sound.

Recent soil tests near an old pool at waterfront Byram Park that the town wants to replace revealed arsenic concentrations at 11 times the acceptable residential standard and the presence of an "ash type material."

A series of tests last month at Armstrong Court, a 1950s-era public housing complex the town housing authority wants to expand, found trace amounts of PCBs and other dangerous heavy metals.

In 2012, the Army Corps of Engineers tested sediment in Greenwich Harbor and found PCBs at twice the reporting limit, along with other heavy metals similar to those found at Byram Park, Armstrong Court and GHS.

The discovery of contamination footprints beyond the high school is raising new questions about the level of pollution in Greenwich and whether a former town trash incinerator and a coal-fired electric plant is the source of the toxic problem.

"These results are certainly cause for concern," said Claire Miller, a community organizer with the New England Toxics Action Center. "Any community with an existing or historical trash incinerator is at risk of exposure to PCBs and other extremely toxic chemicals, like dioxin."

A Hearst Connecticut Media investigation earlier this year into contamination at GHS, based on town documents and eyewitness reports, concluded that ash from the town incinerator and the coal-fired Cos Cob electric plant was used to fill the high school property in the late 1960s, and that fill is likely the source of the contamination there.

Digging deeper

Greenwich Selectman Drew Marzullo is pushing town officials to determine, either through historical records or townwide soil testing, how much property is contaminated.

"This is the decision the town faces," Marzullo said. "It's expensive, and every time we find something, we have to remove it. But this is going to happen again and again. I'd rather be proactive and find out, rather than be reactive -- which is what we are doing now."

First Selectman Peter Tesei said the town already tests soil before construction projects.

"The town does undergo environmental testing on capital improvement projects, and when the Board of Selectmen gave approval for the Byram Park pool project it was with the understanding environmental testing would be conducted," Tesei said.

The first selectman said he does not support testing just any town property for contaminants.

"Greenwich is one of the larger towns in Connecticut in terms of land size, approximately 50 square miles," Tesei said. "Given the areas where traces of contaminants have been found ... is small in relationship to the entire town, I do not see the validity of arbitrarily digging up places for which no redevelopment activity is going to take place."

"It seems the money can be better applied to more purposeful endeavors," he said.

Trail of ash

Town officials have been surprised by contamination before -- and evidence is growing that the town decades ago regularly moved ash from the former incinerator.

A town public works commissioner told Greenwich Time in 1973 that at least 28,000 tons of contaminated ash from the town incinerator was used to fill the GHS property where the original football field, now a practice field, was built. The field was sinking and the unstable fill was blamed for the problem.


A Hearst review of invoices from the 1960s and early 1970s found that the town routinely removed thousands of tons of "noncombustible waste" from the incinerator. The material was loaded into dump trucks and hauled away, records show.

But there is no indication where the material was taken or what it was. It's presumed to be ash, considering the tonnage moved and the fact officials would have needed to periodically clear space for more ash.

An eyewitness told Hearst that during the 1960s he watched as the town hauled truckloads of ash from its Holly Hill Lane incinerator and the Cos Cob power plant to fill the high school site, once known as Ten Acre Swamp.

Two years ago, workers preparing Greenwich High School for the new Music Instructional Space and Auditorium project brought up an oily, foul smelling slurry and soon discovered high levels of PCBs and other federally regulated toxins such as arsenic, lead, chromium and a mixture of hydrocarbons used in crude oil, all byproducts of incineration.

Tesei did not respond to a request for comment on whether the town's former incinerator could be the source of contamination being found at different sites in town.

Marzullo said decades ago incinerator ash was likely used as fill all over town, noting the practice was legal under environmental law at the time.

"Greenwich is not exclusive to this," Marzullo said. "It happened across the U.S. and is complicated by the fact of a different time in terms of regulations."

Armstrong Court PCBs

The town's housing authority recently posted a statement on its website declaring that Armstrong Court soil "is clean of toxins."

The problem is, the authority's soil tests do not support the contention.

The report by Melick-Tully and Associates shows trace amounts of PCBs were found, and the results are below the residential standard of one part per million.

Levels at or above the standard must be reported to environmental regulators and automatically trigger an investigative and remediation process.

Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are a man-made chemical mixture once commonly used in industrial products, such as electrical transformers, and a host of other consumer goods. PCBs have been proven to cause cancer and damage the immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems.

The chemical joiners were banned by the federal government in 1979.

Another Armstrong Court test found arsenic at 9.16 ppm, just below the residential standard of 10 ppm. Chromium was found in one test at 280 ppm, above the 100 ppm standard for common chromium, and beryllium was found at 1.3 ppm, below the residential standard of 2 ppm.

Other heavy metals were detected in amounts below the residential standard, such as barium, iron, lead, nickel, cadmium and selenium.

All of the metals detected at Armstrong Court, along with the PCBs, are commonly found in incinerator ash.

Despite those results, Greenwich Housing Commissioner George Yankowich recently told the Planning and Zoning Commission soil tests at Armstrong Court uncovered nothing significant.

"They did extensive contamination tests, and they're all under the limits," Yankowich said.

Eric Bilhuber, a developer associated with the expansion project, added "in layman's terms, it's clean and green."

Still, the P&Z put the brakes on plans to expand Armstrong Court, delaying a decision and asking for more information on soil tests. Commissioners said they want to formulate a history of the site and determine what, if any, environmental issues are there.

A 1952 article in Greenwich Time reported complaints from residents about incinerator smoke and soot falling onto Armstrong Court soon after the housing complex opened. The incinerator was not shut down until 1977.

Downwind and downstream


Soil tests in 2011 and 2012 by Michael Finkbeiner, a Greenwich land surveyor and environmental activist, found arsenic and lead levels above the residential standard in what's called the Holly Hill ash embankment near Armstrong Court and Tom's Brook, which runs by the former incinerator, the housing complex and Byram Park.

Lead and chromium were found in the Byram tidal flats at levels below the residential limit, and along the Tom's Brook embankment, according to the privately funded study.

"Armstrong Court has been the downwind and downstream neighbor to the Holly Hill facility since its construction 60 years ago," Finkbeiner wrote in a 2011 report submitted to the town.

"Therefore, we demonstrated that lead and chromium leachate from Holly Hill maintain a consistent flow and plume until they reach Byram Harbor," Finkbeiner said.

"Exposure levels require remediation," he said. "The first priority for the town should be on-site control of leached toxins. Many strategies are available for sequestration, cap-and-seal, or bio-remediation."

Byram Park arsenic

Recent soil tests in an area around an aging pool show arsenic at up to 110 parts per million, with most results in the 40 ppm range. Any level over the residential standard of 10 ppm must be removed if dirt is disturbed.

Alan Monelli, the town's building superintendent, said he believes the Byram Park arsenic is naturally occurring and came from topsoil used to fill the area decades ago.

"If it came from incinerator ash, you would usually find lead or something else," Monelli said. "There were no pesticides or anything else. (The property) was as a residence and then a quarry. Topsoil was brought in about five feet down."

"The topsoil must have had naturally occurring arsenic," Monelli said, adding that arsenic levels are particularly high in Greenwich soil.

Naturally occurring arsenic in soil usually ranges from 1 to 4 ppm, but can rise to a high of 40 ppm, according to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Miller, the Toxic Action Center organizer, said it's likely the Byram Park arsenic came from an outside source, such as the town's old incinerator.

"The Environmental Protection Agency says that most places in Connecticut have little to no naturally occurring arsenic, so I would certainly agree it's plausible such high levels may be from pollution," Miller said.

"Arsenic is poison," Miller said. "It can cause cancer, lower IQ scores in children, nausea, vomiting, and ingesting it in high levels can result in death."

Amy Siebert, the town's public works commissioner, said some "ash-type material" was found in soil tests at Byram Park, but added it's not clear where the material came from or the origin of arsenic found in the park.

"We don't know exactly where the arsenic may have come from, given how long ago the property was filled," Siebert said. "While we found evidence of some ash-type material in a limited area under what had been a tennis court many decades ago, we found predominantly sand and topsoil throughout the site."

Monelli dismissed the ash, saying it was misidentified and more likely is clay material used in building the tennis court surface.

Siebert said ash can come from many sources, including backyards.

"Back in the day, homes that burned coal had ash to dispose of, as well as sources such as power plants or other entities we might think of more frequently," Siebert said.

"Many compounds that were in use over the last centuries can be persistent in the environment, metal, salts in pesticides, organic pesticides, etc. People used to bury all kinds of things in their own yards. These factors and others can impact soils, and also make it very difficult to determine the original source of such soil," Siebert said.

Prior to 1919, the land which makes up Byram Park was a bluestone quarry.

After the quarry was shut down, the property was filled to create a usable land mass.

Newspaper accounts and other records show the town over the decades did extensive work at the Byram site, creating beaches, building recreational facilities, installing utilities, roads, pathways and gardens, all while the trash incinerator and coal-fired electric plant were in operation.

After the former Rosenwald estate adjacent to the then boundary of Byram Park was purchased in 1974, the town began improving the plush estate, which included a pool.

A 1975 Greenwich Time article details plans to haul $15,000 worth of base fill to the property and $16,800 worth of sand for the beach, along with efforts to upgrade electrical systems and other features.

Whether contaminated ash from the incinerator or Cos Cob power plant was brought to the site in 1975 as fill -- or at any time in the past -- is not known.

But some are asking questions and want to find out.

"Because tests have not been done, it's possible getting into these sites may find a lot," said Peter Quigley, a former Representative Town Meeting member and a current Harbor Commission member.

"Elected officials don't want to touch it," Quigley said. "It could be serious or it may not be. They would have used ash to fill stuff. The town should be doing soil testing. It's the responsibility of elected officials to set up protocols to find out what's going on."