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Toxic Tour

A Recent Report Highlights Some Of The State's Enviromental Lowlights.

May 24, 2007
By ADAM BULGER, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer

Wethersfield and Windsor are both ranked 11. West Hartford 14. New Britain 26. Southington 30. Hartford 38.

I was looking at the findings of a 45 page report put out in April by West Hartford’s Toxic Action Center. Called Toxics in Connecticut: A Town-by-Town Profile, the report provides an overview of toxic hazards in the state, then provides a breakdown of toxic sites in towns and cities.

For each town, the report takes account of active and closed landfills, asphalt batchers, incinerators, large quantity power generators, power plants, Superfund sites, toxic release inventory sites and permitted water dischargers.

Using it as a road map for a cheerless day of travel, I set out in my car to drive around and have a look. I expected it to look like scenes from The Simpsons — electric green water and three-eyed fish. I didn’t see anything that looked like Blinky. In fact, most of the sites I visited didn’t stand out at all.

Take Southington, for example. With a 30 ranking, it had one of the highest toxic ranks in Hartford county. New England’s division of the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Site Remediation and Restoration lists the six-acre old Southington landfill site on Old Turnpike Road as a national priority. It operated as a landfill from 1947 to 1967, and was designated as a part of the Superfund National Priority List in the 1980s. The site was rehabilitated in the first wave of early ’80s, post-Three Mile Island Superfund clean-ups, but is still on the EPA’s long-term national priorities list.

When I got there, the site was covered in lush grass and was being visited by ducks. Except for the fence surrounding it and one or two pressure-releasing pumps, it could have been a park. While the area looks nice aesthetically, Toxic Action Center Executive Director Alyssa Schuren suggested that bad stuff could well be lurking. As part of the clean up, the site had been lined to contain the contamination, but Schuren said the lining doesn’t always hold up.

“It may not look that bad, but it’s really what’s under the surface that’s the problem. What’s under the landfill can leak into water supplies, eventually the liners can rip. Some experts say the liners only last 30 years before you have problems,” Schuren said.

My experience with the Southington Superfund site was indicative of many toxic hazards in the state. Their presence isn’t exactly advertised. Many of the EPA-listed sites I set out to find remained hidden. They seemed swallowed by the landscape.

Even though major toxic hazards can be hard to spot, Schuren said I wouldn’t have to travel far to get up close and personal with one.

“There was a Harvard study that came out that said people that live in a 30-mile radius of a fossil fuel power plant have a higher risk of getting asthma than people who live outside of that ring,” Schuren said. “If you just look at these power plants and draw a 30-mile ring around it, that’s the majority of the state of Connecticut.”

After the report was released, Schuren said, the Toxic Action Center was contacted by several real estate agents checking on properties. The purpose of the report, though, wasn’t to create or pop a toxic housing market bubble.

“We were getting calls from people all over the state asking what was in their town. We did this in response to give people a complete picture with a town-by-town breakdown in the back,” Schuren said.

While the report is the most comprehensive of its kind for Connecticut, the information in it has been available from various sources.

“We compiled data from the department of environmental protection and the environmental protection agency, and put it together so that people could have one-stop shopping for the information,” Schuren said.

My original scoring method of simply adding the numbers of toxic sites listed in the report’s town-by-town breakdown, Schuren told me, isn’t the hard and fast indicator of toxicity I had hoped it was.

“Some of the hazardous waste sites are bigger than others. Some are like a leaking gas station … then there are sites like the Hartford landfill, which, say, is a major site of contamination,” Schuren said.

(For the CRRA's response to the Toxic Action Center's report and characterization of the Hartford landill, see below)

Each incident of toxicity has to be judged differently. The toxic emissions of incinerators, for instance, are difficult to gauge, as the volume of toxins released by incinerators changes from day to day. Some sites don’t pose as much of an environmental threat as others.

“Ultimately one of the more benign things would be a closed hazard waste site that had some remediation that went to a commercial or an industrial use. Like if it had a parking lot put on top of it. Then it’s not toxic if you touch the soil,” Schuren said.

In the report’s map of all of the state’s toxic sources, the densest clusters of toxic sites are in major cities.

“A lot of the old industrial plants that have gone by the by were there. They aren’t operating anymore, but they’ve still polluted the area,” Schuren said. “In more industrial areas, you’re going to have more industrial pollution.”

However, one prominent local environmental advocate praised the report, but accused it of omission. Mark Mitchell, the head of Hartford-based group the Coalition for Environmental Justice said that the report overlooks one of the state’s most important environmental hazards: diesel exhaust.

“Diesel is a major issue. The EPA says that if you’re looking at air toxins, diesel is the number one concern,” Mitchell said.

If diesel and other kinds of exhaust were factored into the report, Mitchell said, urban areas would rate even worse.

“That’s part of this structural racism. If you continue to build on places where there’s the least resistance, instead of the places where it makes the most sense or the greatest need, then that’s not fair,” Mitchell said.

When I asked Schuren what would be the best place to go on a toxic tourist trip, she told me I was already there.

“Hartford has it all,” Schuren said, adding that “Hartford has the greatest diversity of toxic sites.”

Indeed, according to the report, Hartford checks in seven out of nine categories, including 15 toxic release inventory sites. It only lacks an asphalt batcher and a closed landfill to complete the toxic spectrum.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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