Mid-Century Dartmouth Hazardous Waste Site Contaminates Drinking Water

Aug 22, 2016

A Dartmouth hazardous waste burial site has contaminated the ground water near a Hanover neighborhood. Those chemicals are now on the move, and at least one family’s drinking water has been affected. 

At her home on Rennie Road, whenever Debbie Higgins wants a glass of water, she passes her sink and heads to a cooler of water provided by Dartmouth College.

“This is the water we use for brushing our teeth, drinking, for washing fruits and vegetables, for cooking,” she said recently, filling a glass.

It's been like this since last September, when Dartmouth notified Debbie and her husband Richard Higgins that 1,4-dioxane — a probable carcinogen — had contaminated their water.

A chemical plume had moved downhill from a burial site about 800 feet away, at Rennie Farm. In the 1960s and '70s, it was a burial ground for lab animals; human tissue and fetuses; and radioactive materials used for research, according to Dartmouth Medical School records.

The plot, which is a the top of a steep, marshy hill, is about a half an acre. Dartmouth tried to sell the property in 2011, and planned to clean up the site.

The company hired by Dartmouth to excavate Rennie Farm reported finding rusted cans filled with "deep purple-colored liquid with strong solvent odor" that had leaked into the ground and discolored the groundwater "with a purple sheen."

The digging also revealed animal carcasses that were buried deeper than previous records showed, and in layers throughout the site.

Further sampling found 1,4-dioxane and a handful of radionuclides had seeped into the groundwater.

The Rennie Farm burial plot, pictured in August 2016. There is no visible signage warning of contamination. Dartmouth College has installed fencing around the area in the past weeks.
Credit Rebecca Sananes / VPR

Dartmouth set up test wells on the college property to see if the contamination had moved.

It had.

Standing in the woods across from his house after a recent rainstorm, Richard Higgins pointed out one of the wells about a football field's length away from his property.

“In July of 2015, Dartmouth had a reading in this well at 520 parts per billion,” he said, tapping a branch on the metal well.

Documentation from a company involved in the cleanup corroborates this number, which is hundreds of times the New Hampshire state limit for for 1,4-dioxane in drinking water: 3 parts per billion.

Two months later, Dartmouth told the Higgins to stop drinking their water.

But Debbie Higgins had already experienced unexplainable symptoms.

“I was having some vertigo; it felt like water was in my left ear constantly and every time I tipped my head up I would get dizzy,” she remembers. “So when I went to my yearly exam I mentioned it to my doctor and she looked in my ear, like there’s nothing clogging it up, she sees nothing in there."

Debbie assumed the symptoms would pass on their own. “When we started drinking the bottled water, within two weeks I didn’t have any symptoms. And I haven’t had any since,” she said.

Both Debbie and Richard report other short-term health problems: hair loss, peeling skin in their mouths, open sores between their fingers.

Their dog was urinating blood.

It all stopped when the bottled water came.

Richard Higgins shows the filtration system Dartmouth installed in his house, to purify water for showering and washing dishes. The system filters for 1,4-dioxane, but not the other radionuclides likely in their water.
Credit Rebecca Sananes / VPR

But the Higgins call themselves the "human guinea pigs" for the possible long-term health effects of 1,4-dioxane. “We’re worried there will be long-term health effects because there were short-term health effects,” Debbie said, her voice cracking. “So, yeah, it worries us a lot and there’s not a lot we can do about it.”

The Higgins have tried to relocate, but realtors say contaminated land in Hanover is unsalable.

To complicate matters, Debbie Higgins is a wheelchair-user, and needs to live in a handicap-accessible home.

Debbie and Richard Higgins on the back deck of their home. They had their house customized for Debbie's accessibility, including ramps throughout the house, and are now unsure about the prospect of relocating.
Credit Rebecca Sananes / VPR

Ellen Arnold, the director of real estate at Dartmouth College, has been involved in the Rennie Farm case for years and says selling contaminated property has not been difficult, in her experience.

“Simply being adjacent to or even having contamination on your property, it will have an impact on value, but those properties are used all the time and sold all the time,” she said at her office in Hanover.

She continued: “But we are doing everything we can to make sure the contamination stays on our [Dartmouth College's] property and shouldn't impact anyone else's.”

"We are doing everything we can to make sure the contamination stays on [Dartmouth] property and shouldn't impact anyone else's." - Ellen Arnold, director of real estate, Dartmouth College

Dartmouth has been in ongoing mediation with the Higgins. Arnold declined to comment on the Higgins' case specifically.

The college has already invested $5 million in the site cleanup.

Arnold says Dartmouth has the same goal as those living near the burial site: “Our concerns are exactly the same as those of the neighbors, and our goal is exactly the same as theirs: to make sure that this site is clean and doesn't present a safety risk."

Now, separately from the Higgins, other area residents are asking Dartmouth to do more.

New test wells are being set up past the Higgins' house, in the direction the plume is likely heading.

It is still unknown if other neighbors in the area are drinking the probable carcinogen.

This is the first in a two-part series on the Rennie Farm groundwater contamination. 

Update 12:10, Tuesday, August 23, 2016: After repeated requests for comment, New Hampshire environmental officials said Tuesday that 1-4, dioxane has not been found in the 20 private wells tested to date. The testing continues, and some neighbors remain concerned that the carcinogen may be spreading to their drinking water supplies.