The Mystery of the Muddied Waters

Questions remain as city officials, environmental experts and residents grapple with what happened to North Stamford well water and what should be done about it



photograph BY istockphoto.com © Dragan Arrigler

For many in Stamford, the summer of 1976 was a happy time. As the country celebrated its bicentennial, the Yankees were finally showing signs of life. (In fact, for the first time in more than a decade, the Yanks would make it to the World Series that fall.)

But it wasn’t all fun and games for the kids playing baseball at Scofieldtown Park. According to internal city documents, that summer parents noticed pipes, cables and wires starting to pop out of the ground—including a “loop of cable” in the outfield grass eight feet beyond second base—while the Little Leaguers played around them. “[The cable is] obviously a danger to anyone utilizing the field,” says a letter from the city’s Board of Representatives to the Public Works Department.

The debris, as many suspected, was from a landfill that had operated at the site for more than three decades before being buried and turned into a park. Wear and tear from park activity, along with rain, had eroded the topsoil there, exposing the debris and other waste. Over the years the city was periodically called to remove it, apply extra layers of topsoil and improve drainage.

The condition of the landfill would become the site’s well-known secret. But what those parents—and today’s area residents and their representatives—probably never anticipated was that their complaints would set in motion an environmental whodunit in 2008 after investigators from the federal Environmental Protection Agency released a 114-page report confirming that the garbage buried at the park was polluting the water around it. The mystery appeared to be solved a year later but, in fact, remains unsolved.

Here is what we know today: Cancer-causing pesticides have been found in water drawn from private wells of North Stamford homes to the east of Scofieldtown Park. And as city officials, engineers and home owners continue to test the groundwater in locations farther away from the former landfill, advocates for further study of the issue say there is evidence suggesting the contamination might stretch across all of North Stamford.

What isn’t known is the source of those pesticides, resulting in back-and-forth finger-pointing that continues to fuel a debate about whose responsibility it is to clean up the water.

“We don’t want to unnecessarily scare people,” says Jay Crutcher, a member of the 300-strong North Stamford Concerned Citizens for the Environment (NSCCE), which recently sued the city to find out what it knows and how it plans to further deal with the problem. “From our perspective, if there is a problem, you fix it. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”

 

The Facts of the Case

Since 1976 city, state and federal investigators have discovered tires, barrels of chemicals and tainted water in the site and in private wells nearby. But a summary of the history in the EPA report indicates that there wasn’t enough pollution to qualify it as a major problem, or contamination was so randomly distributed that it was difficult to draw conclusions. Still, the EPA continued to sniff around, mostly because former landfills are often trouble spots years after their closure.

The 2008 report, the most comprehensive to date, expanded on earlier studies that included a laundry list of chemicals found at the site. Among them were known carcinogens like benzene, methylene and chloroform, likely dumped there by downtown factories, the report suggests. Also discovered were dieldrin and chlordane, the cancer-causing pesticides at the center of the current mystery. Now long banned, dieldrin and chlordane were once used to battle termites and these, too, were presumed to be emanating from the dump.

To the city’s credit, its response to the problem was bold and swift. In May 2009 then-Mayor Dannel Malloy closed Scofieldtown Park for good. Around the same time, the city decided to build—and pay for—water lines that would bring utility water to affected properties on streets east of the park.

All might have ended there save the results of studies done by the city-hired consulting group TRC Corporation in the wake of the EPA report. The consultants found that even though dieldrin and chlordane were turning up on North Stamford properties, they didn’t originate from the landfill because of “what is known about the ground water [sic] elevations and flow direction,” says a TRC memo about its fndings.

As a consequence, though the $3.4 million water-main undertaking had already funneled utility water to ninety-six homes at no direct cost to their occupants, the city halted the tie-in project.

In spite of the move, city officials now under Mayor Michael Pavia’s leadership seem similarly committed to tackling the water problem. Last fall Mayor Pavia agreed to a state order to close the former landfill in a safer way by permanently capping it, which will likely cost $5 million. And though he disbanded the Scofieldtown Area Remediation Task Force, originally set up by Malloy to study the EPA findings, he settled the NSCCE suit by promising additional testing on city-owned parcels near the site, including Scofield Magnet Middle School and Smith House. Home owners, too, can test their wells at a discount courtesy of the city.

To be fair, groundwater is prone to contamination, especially in densely settled states like Connecticut, where the same land covered with suburban cul-de-sacs today was likely once occupied by factories and farms. But if the source of the pesticides is found to be on another city-owned property in the area, additional water lines might have to be put in place, says Pavia, adding that the costs would be borne jointly by the city, residents and Aquarion Water Company, the public water utility that serves the rest of Stamford. “It would just be too expensive to have one entity try to take that on,” he says.

These steps, however, seem cold comfort to some residents with well water who have been using their water for years. Compounding their health concerns are real estate worries that in an economic recovery, their homes might lose further value.

“There are clear implications for real estate sales,” says City Representative Randy Skigen, who, under pressure from concerned citizens, recently spearheaded the formation of a five-member panel to urge the city to bring more transparency to the testing process. He has also proposed having the city help foot more of the bill than it already does for tests of all North Stamford properties to map the extent of the problem. “This issue has, pardon the phrase, percolated for too many years up there,” says Skigen, who doesn’t think buyers will stay away from North Stamford but believes sellers might now have to invest in water filters.

Not everyone on Skigen’s task force agrees that the city must pay for additional well tests. “If you own private property, you have challenges and costs associated with that ownership,” as you would with radon leaks, says City Representative Harry Day, a former member of the Scofieldtown task force. (Day is also a member of the Stamford Magazine Editorial Advisory Board.) “In my mind, we have met our obligations.”

Pavia is also opposed. “Philosophically, I don’t believe it is up to the taxpayers at large to pay to have my well tested.”

Is There a Smoking Gun?

As the city and its residents haggle over who should foot the testing bill, speculation about the source of the pesticides continues to widen.

Common wisdom had the blame for leaking contaminants resting squarely on Scofieldtown Park. The language in the voluminous EPA report is unsparing about what the agency found at the eighteen-acre site, where it estimates that garbage is buried up to thirty feet deep.

In many ways the landfill’s polluted state is to be expected. Opened in the 1930s and operating until 1968, it was the place where many Stamford factories went to dump barrels of waste, which were removed intermittently through the decades, the report says.

A finger in the EPA report also points at the Archdiocese of Bridgeport, landlord of the next-door Queen of Peace Cemetery. Though it has owned the 114-acre property since the 1950s, the archdiocese only developed it as a cemetery in 1983. This required filling in surrounding wetlands. Removing that important “sponge” of wetlands in turn diverted chemical-laden water seeping out of the dump into private wells, some EPA engineers claimed. (A call seeking comment from the diocese for this article was not returned.)

By other measures the landfill seems completely innocent. First, the pesticides in question, which were used to attack termites, don’t really fit with the kind of substances that would have been dumped there by Stamford factories. In fact, dieldrin and chlordane are frequently associated with home owners, who would bury them in the soil around foundations of their new houses to keep bugs away, says engineer Carl Stopper of TRC, who compiled the city report that originally cast doubt on the former landfill’s role as the polluter in this case. And not only were these types of pesticides injected deep into the ground, they barely decompose over time, he explains.

A factor in the matter is North Stamford’s rocky soil, which could have prevented pesticides from sinking by entombing them instead, or acted as a funnel for the chemicals and dispersed them across the area, Stopper adds.

Additional entities have recently been singled out, like the University of Connecticut, whose Stamford campus was based on the magnet school site from 1959 to 1998. According to NSCCE, science labs on the property generated harmful waste that might not have been properly disposed of. The school strongly denies it was a polluter. A legal skirmish between UConn and the state’s Department of Environmental Protection about the matter is now wending its way through the courts. “The university has no information that would indicate that either soil or groundwater at the property is contaminated,” said Richard Miller, UConn’s director of environmental policy, in a statement.

Besides, the amount of waste generated by those labs, when spread out over time, wasn’t even enough to be considered hazardous under state laws, reads a February letter to the DEP from lawyers representing the school.

Also singled out was the sixty-one-acre Bartlett Arboretum, which in an earlier life was a tree farm owned by F.A. Bartlett Tree Expert Company. Last year soil samples from the property collected by TRC tested positive for DDT and chlordane, prompting the city to finance a second phase of soil and groundwater testing, just undertaken earlier this year. As of this writing, the results are pending.

Echoing comments by city officials, Eric Morgan, a curator of botany at the arboretum, says tests will probably show that the city-owned facility has a clean bill of health despite traces of toxins. Indeed, Morgan seemed to point the finger at home owners who may have unknowingly applied the bug-killers to their landscaping. “Our people here were trained to use those chemicals,” he says.

While Mayor Pavia admits that further testing at the arboretum could result in disruptive digging and tree-cutting inside the popular park, he believes there’s a “very slim chance” that the public space will be found to be the source.

With no clear resolution in sight, the issue was also complicated last summer when Gary Robbins, a UConn geologist hired by the city to map the contamination, quit over resistance from residents. They didn’t want their wells tested for fear of what the results would do to their property values, he says. Yet others worried that if their property was found to have drums full of chemicals stashed by some long-ago farmer—a theory considered at the time—they might be on the hook for lawsuits, some residents have said.

“[Residents] want to find a smoking gun,” says Robbins, who adds that North Stamford’s problems aren’t much different from those in the rest of the state. Dieldrin and chlordane, like DDT, were widely used around Connecticut.

Living with Uncertainty

More recently, the NSCCE has been asking residents to test their well water and share results with the city. “Ask your neighbors if they have tested, and ask if they have shared their results with the City,” reads a recent e-newsletter from the group to its members. (The newsletter also tells home owners that disclosure of testing results will not contribute to property-value declines. “Any good Realtor or attorney will tell a buyer to get a full water test prior to closing,” it reads.)

In the meantime, how to seal the former landfill remains an issue. With all the regulatory hurdles to clear, that project won’t likely start until next year, says Pavia, who maintains that the source of the pesticides may never be known.

That uncertainty troubles Marion Hamilton. She is a longtime resident of Scofieldtown Road whose house was initially flagged to receive city water, but the job was never finished. She has since installed a filter but wants the city to complete the work it started; it could cost her up to $15,000 to do it herself. “You can’t throw up your hands,” she says, “and tell us, ‘It doesn’t come from the dump so we’re done here.’ People are still consuming the water.”

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