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Hamden soil pollution extends middle school vacation

By Amsalu Dabela

Beneath the snowy, tree-lined streets of Hamden lies toxic residue of a landfill situated there 60 years ago, as State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) officials recently discovered in samples taken at Hamden Middle School.
REBECCA ROSENTHAL / YH

Numerous students and teachers have experienced symptoms of headache, nausea and fainting as well as instances of cancer. "We are dealing a lot with people's anecdotal evidence," Hamden Schools Superintendent Alida Begina said. "There has been a lot of discussion about people who may have had cancer."

Students' and teachers' symptoms over the past few years led to the teachers' request for an investigation into the possible cause. "This all cropped up because teachers were having health problems,"Ann Inzero, a parent and former Hamden Middle School teacher, said.

About seven for-mer staff members have died of cancer while still in their 50s, Richard Inzero, who is a former teacher at the school, a parent, and also co-president of the PTA and a member of the Newhall Coalition said.

"Though the problem was there all along, it was a hidden one," Hamden Town Mayor Carl Amento said at a public meeting on Tues., Jan. 9. State officials thoroughly cleaned the school walls, floors, and ductwork after the DEP released their findings, according to an environmental update released yesterday by Begina and Health Risk Consultants, an agency the school employed to handle the issue.

DEP director Mike Harder said the recently completed cleanup efforts will "limit the risk of exposure for the short term until a full investigation can occur." Cleanup crews removed soil from problem sites at the school, installed a layer of water-permeable geotextile fabric over toxic soil that remains about one foot underground, and covered the barrier with soil-lacking toxins. High concentrations of lead, carcinogens, and other toxins, including several polyaromatic hydrocarbons, still remain under the barrier. Amento said that the short-term solution will allow school to restart Tues., Jan. 16 after an unusual three-week break.

"We have determined that there are virtually no chemicals from under the school getting into the school," State Department of Public Health official Brian Toal said. He added that the department will determine "whether the presence of waste presents a serious health risk."

Amento said that for now, students and teachers will not relocate to a different building. "There's educational quality and safety issues," he said. He restated that since the school has been thoroughly cleaned and the toxic soil either removed or covered up, a move is unnecessary.

Yale Green Corps circulated a petition and had planned a Monday rally to protest the reopening of Hamden Middle School. Due to the lack of a permit, the protest was cancelled.

"An overwhelming majority of teachers, 84 percent, signed a petition saying they do not want to return to the current building," Katherine Lo, CC '03, a member of the Yale Green Corps said.

"Yale students, as residents of New Haven and Connecticut, are not separate from what goes on in [Hamden]," Lo said. "In terms of a school being built on a toxic waste site, it would not hurt for Yale students to think about the campus they live on and what they breathe and how it affects the larger picture," she added. "It is just wrong that a school was built on a hazardous waste site."

Residents of Newhall Street, where the school is located, recently formed the Newhall Coalition in order to urge state officials to resolve the Hamden Middle School contamination issue. "We need to fix the situation to make sure that all of our health and safety is the issue," Coalition President Joe Frasier said.

The extensive testing initially arose out of the school's plan for expansions and renovations to accommodate a growing student population, as it is Hamden's only middle school. "We undertook these tests to determine if the ground below the school can support the work of renovations," Begina said. Hamden city legislators are considering a plan to build a new middle school after the Board of Education accepted a proposal for a new school on Tues., Jan. 9.

Hamden Middle School opened in 1954 at a site used as dump for industrial and domestic waste until 1940. "The Phase II [DEP investigative survey] report indicates that there are hydrocarbon compounds that have not burned completely [and are] known to cause cancer in animals as well as in humans," Inzero said.

Several parents and students at Tuesday's meeting voiced concerns that too few soil samples were taken from the school grounds. Toal stated, however, that "most of the waste at the school is fairly immobile" and therefore cannot become airborne. Toal added that other factors such as indoor air problems and poor ventilation may have caused some students' symptoms.

On Wednesday, the DEP began taking soil samples in the neighborhood area surrounding Hamden Middle School in order to determine whether waste is present, Harder said. If waste is found, the Environmental Protection Agency may perform additional tests, he added.

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