Searching for a permanent solution to Endicott's toxic plume

Apr 10, 2015

The DEC's Alex Czuhanich presents progress during a March meeting on cleanup in the area south of IBM campus in Endicott.
Credit Matt Richmond/WSKG News

For more than 10 years, New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation and IBM have been working to clean up chemical spills in the groundwater under Endicott. They’ve made progress on the part of the spill known as the “toxic plume.” According to a recent report issued by the DEC, 80 percent of the spill under homes south of the old IBM campus has been cleaned up. In that report, the DEC said it plans to continue using a method known as“pump and treat.”
 
Larry Siegel works at the Center for Public Environmental Oversight. He advocates for cleanup of areas contaminated by microprocessor manufacturers in California. WSKG’s Matt Richmond spoke with Siegel about the state of cleanup in Endicott and the next steps.

MATT RICHMOND: The DEC was saying, ‘we’ve made real progress.’ I guess what they didn’t say but what you might think was coming next would be, ‘and the end is in sight.’

LARRY SIEGEL: We don’t know that the end is in sight. Where ‘pump-and-treat’ is the remedy, frequently the remedy reaches an asymptote; after a while you start pulling less and less out of the ground. Normally, in my community, when we review the documents from the regulatory agencies we ask the questions: ‘Ok, that’s great what you’ve done so far. What do you expect to happen over the next year, the next ten years? Are you going to achieve the levels or do we need to do something else to get to the standard that we need to achieve to make sure that people are safe?’

MR: The other player in this is IBM, and eventually IBM is going to say, you know, ‘this problem, at least in the homes, has been dealt with.’

SIEGEL: And it may be that what I’m proposing will serve IBM because in many cases the more innovative remedies are time-limited. That is, you inject things into the soil a few times and you’re done as opposed to running pumps year after year after year.

The reason why it’s important to raise this issue now is it’s not clear when in the future DEC will be rethinking the remedy. It’s the decision they’re making now that may be permanent. So even though they’re doing a good job, now is the time to ask the long-term questions.

MR: Is there a way for those homes above the vapor cloud to have a permanent monitoring or a permanent vapor removal, even if they say, ‘well, it’s cleaned up'?

SIEGEL: There are technologies that have been emerging for some time now. Every year, we expect something to come on the market that would be kind of like a smoke detector, a methane detector or a carbon monoxide detector that you could put in the home and would give you an alarm when the levels go up. We aren’t there yet, but hopefully at some point we’ll have that kind of monitoring to let people know whether or not they’re safe.

The same systems that were installed by IBM helped protect people against radon, which is in fact a greater health risk in most cases than exposure to TCE. Some people might choose to keep them running. But at least there’s less of a stigma on their real estate, on the value of their property, when it’s being done for radon as opposed to TCE because there are only 500 homes that need the TCE mitigation but in New York State thousands, maybe millions of homes could use radon mitigation.  

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