Under Pressure From Residents, Dartmouth Re-Excavates Hazardous Waste Site

Aug 23, 2016

Despite having declared the site clean four years ago, Dartmouth College is re-excavating a burial plot of hazardous waste. A group of local residents is pressuring the college to do a more comprehensive cleanup. 

The residents want Dartmouth to mitigate a plume of chemical run-off that has already contaminated one neighbor's drinking water.

On a recent summer afternoon, the residents living around Rennie Farm in Hanover gather at the waste site. 

Dartmouth had invited them to speak with the project manager excavating a contaminated Dartmouth burial ground left over from the 1960s and '70s.

Dartmouth is excavating for a second time.

“I would like to present first a summary of what we have done to date. That may answer some of your questions. It may raise more,” Charles Watts tells a small crowd. Watts is the president of Clym Environmental Services, one of the companies Dartmouth hired to oversee cleanup on the property.

In 2011, Dartmouth planned to sell off the land and wanted to oversee the excavation of the radioactive burial ground.

Fast forward to this summer: Following mounting pressure from neighbors asking to completely excavate the area, Dartmouth went back to check for anomalies.

Earlier this summer, they found several more animal carcasses in the plot.

Dartmouth submitted their plan for a new site cleanup to the state. "The proposed work is necessary based on the unexpected observations of buried animal carcasses and laboratory waste during recent test pit excavations," the plan says.

Back in 2011, Charles Watts had reported on their findings.

“We dug at what we thought was one of the plots until we uncovered a bag. That bag was a thick black, plastic bag and when we opened it we could see the remains of a decomposing animal on the inside,” he described in the report. “Looking at that first bag, I recognized that we were going to have a difficult time in sampling this material and coming up with a way to defend any results that show this is non-radioactive.”

"I recognized that we were going to have a difficult time in sampling this material and coming up with a way to defend any results that show this is non-radioactive." - Charles Watts, Clym Environmental Services, 2011 report

These lab animals were used back in the 1960s and '70s for medical research.

To prepare the site, Clym had to raze a grove of trees over the now bare field where the radioactive burial plot lies.

Some of these animal carcasses had root damage from those trees.

The trees still sit in an unmarked, untested pile in a corner of the property.

Watts' report back in 2011 said one plot had filled with ground water with a deep purple sheen under layers of buried material.

“The ground water came in at about 6 feet, if I recall correctly,” he said recently. “When we had the excavator pulling buckets of water up, we couldn't tell whether or not we had gotten to the bottom of plot 28.”

The 2011 cleanup took place the last two weeks of November. Winter brought it to a halt.

The end of Watts' report calls for a "Phase Two" of cleanup.

In order to find the refuse in the first place, Dartmouth provided a hand-drawn map on what Watts describes as a piece of graph paper of the burial ground from the 1970s.

A hand-drawn map of the burial site provided by Dartmouth College for the initial clean-up.
Credit Dartmouth College

Peter Spiegel is a professor emeritus of radiology at Dartmouth College and a local resident.

At the recent community meeting, Spiegel asked Watts if the people who drew the map had done any of the original burial work: “What was the connect between the people who actually did the burial and the creation of that map? I mean, was there someone monitoring them and exactly where they put the material?”

Watts' answer was no.

It is unclear who at Dartmouth was supposed to be overseeing the Rennie Farm plot over the years.

Although Tim Winslow, who lives in the area, remembers warnings.

“[George Stibitz] told me that when he passed away or a few years after, something would happen to this land because of all the things that were in it,” Winslow remembers. “He was the one who knew, and lo and behold, this is what happened after he passed away.”

George Stibitz was a renowned Dartmouth computer scientist living in Hanover at the time. He told Winslow about Rennie Farm years ago, before his death in 1995.

Charles Watts, who oversaw cleanup of the Rennie Farm excavation in 2011, talks to community members about the site.
Credit Rebecca Sananes / VPR

In 2012, a Dartmouth contractor reported to the state of New Hampshire that the site had been remediated. The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services closed the regulatory site file, despite the potential for more waste to be found.

Paul Rydel, who has been overseeing the project for New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, says generally when you clean up a plume you start by cleaning up the source.

“If you focus the resources on addressing the source, then that basically cuts off the ongoing release to groundwater and water quality will improve as a result of that,” he told VPR in a phone interview.

He continued: “So we remove the tank, if it's a landfill we put a cap on that to control leak generation.”

The petition written by neighbors asks for a complete excavation of the Rennie Farm plot, similar to general procedures described by Rydel.

But that will not be happening. Rydel and others say the problem with excavating such a large area is that it risks exacerbating the contamination flow.

One test well in the center of the Rennie Farm plot still had readings of the probable carcinogen 1,4-dioxane up to 600 parts per billion in the ground as of April 2016. The state limit for 1,4-dioxane in water is 3 parts per billion.

Neither Rydel nor any other representatives from the state attended the residential meeting about re-excavation plans at the Rennie site. 

The state will be leading a public information session on Tuesday, Sept. 13, at 6 p.m., at Dartmouth’s Alumni Hall.

The new excavation is expected to be completed this week, according to a Dartmouth spokesperson. 

This is the second installment of a two-part story about Rennie Farm. Read the first here.

UPDATE 4:15p.m. August 25, 2016: This post was updated to clarify that a Dartmouth contractor notified the state in 2012 that the site had been remediated and state subsequently declared it clean.

Information about an upcoming public session hosted by the state was also added. 

UPDATE 3:15p.m. August 30, 2016: In response to this article, Dartmouth spokesperson Diana Lawrence said: "We understand that the neighbors are upset, but that was not the catalyst for this work."