Danger Below?

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Although they worry about the long-term effects of the toxic waste in the water, a small Cape Cod, Mass., town has yet to find the resources to move the schools.

Bourne, Mass.

As she does many school day mornings, Melinda McAra stands in her cluttered kitchen stuffing her daughter's backpack with the essentials: notebook, pencils, money, lunch--and plenty of bottled water.

The mother of two says the extra drinking water--from a local store or the home tap--is necessary because she is afraid the water in her daughter's school may be unsafe. She is not alone.

Eleven-year-old Lindy McAra and 850 other elementary school students in this Cape Cod town have the dubious distinction of being bused onto a Superfund site to go to school.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates there are 67 other Superfund locations--federally identified toxic-waste sites--around the country that are within a mile of a school and that still need to be completely cleaned up. ("EPA Sweep Includes Sites Near Schools," in This Week's News.)

"I think I'm going to regret this 20 years from now, and that's a fear I'd rather not live with," says McAra as she watches Lindy's yellow school bus begin its journey past marshes and horse stables and cranberry bogs toward the military base where her school and two others are located.

The night before, at a gathering of local parents, McAra had complained: "It's a sad state to say to my kid, 'Oh, have fun on the Superfund site today.'"

In recent years, parents have been bombarded with warnings about the presence of gangs, guns, knives, and illegal drugs in schools.

But here in Bourne, Mass., parents worry about the water.They fret about the air and wonder what hazardous chemicals might be lurking in the dirt.

Beneath this fashionable slice of Cape Cod, the summer playground of presidents and celebrities, lies an underground stream of toxic chemicals meandering through the sandy soil.

Before this seaside New England community became a tourist mecca, part of it was used by the U.S. military for bombing training, mock amphibious-landing assaults, and target practice. In the 1940s, the area was a major mobilization point for troops going to war overseas.

But by 1989, the EPA had designated a portion of this coastal land a Superfund site after discovering that decades of fuel spills and toxic-waste dumping at the military compound here had seriously polluted the aquifer that serves as the region's sole water supply. Environmental engineers have since rerouted drinking supplies away from tainted portions of the aquifer.

An Air Force official says there is no danger to children, but some would prefer to relocate the schools to be sure.

Since the 1960s, the town of Bourne has continuously operated three schools on the Massachusetts Military Reservation, a 22,000-acre property that is home to Coast Guard and Air and Army National Guard bases. One of the schools serves grades K-2, and the other two serve grades 5-7. Bourne has two other elementary schools and a high school serving grades 8-12 that are not on the military facility or within the Superfund site.

Today, there is no evidence that the water that is being piped into the schools on the military reservation is contaminated. In fact, according to Mike Minior, a senior environmental engineer with the Air Force Center for Environmental Excellence, or afcee: "There's no risk and no threat to children."

But the Superfund site has seeped into the community psyche. One local tale--dismissed as false by military and school district officials--has it that two boys drowned here one winter because chemicals in a pond they were walking on kept the pond from freezing completely.

More substantively, some parents and teachers in the 2,500-student district point to the fact that the incidence of cancer among adults is unusually high here. These parents and school officials want new schools for Bourne's children. But a mix of federal and local funding decisions keeps putting roadblocks in their path.

In the postwar 1950s and 1960s, the military built four schools in a tight cluster on a grassy hill on the base property to accommodate the children of the more than 10,000 military personnel stationed here. In 1972, the military sold the schools, which were already run by the Bourne district, to the town for $1 each.

When the federal government began scaling down the compound's operations in the early 1980s, one of the schools--the Campbell School--was closed. In 1995, when the elementary schools' enrollment rose, plans were made for Campbell to be renovated and reopened to accommodate about 250 students in grades 3 and 4.

But that never happened.

On a recent sunny afternoon, Kevin Huelsman strides across a field of purple flowers to an abandoned building ringed by overgrown weeds.

The incidence of cancer among adults is unusually high in the town that houses this 2,500-student district.

Just a few hundred feet from Stone Middle School, where Huelsman is principal, the Campbell School today sits vacant. It had to be closed in 1995, two days before it was set to reopen, after soil testing revealed it had been built on a landfill that contained high levels of dieldrin, a pesticide and probable human carcinogen.

The forested plot was used as a firearms storage area during World War II, when it was customary to use pesticides to protect wooden ammunition containers from insects. Besides the polluted soil, further testing showed that caulking and ceiling materials inside the school building contained polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a probable human carcinogen.

Even though the Campbell School is boarded up now, Huelsman and other school officials worry that the toxic dirt could easily blow their way.

"There's always a breeze out here," says Huelsman, watching students playing soccer on a field a few hundred feet from Campbell. "We've got contaminated soil, and if it's ingested, it's a problem," Huelsman says.

Mary C. Fuller, the principal at the neighboring Lyle Middle School and a 35-year veteran of the district, worked at Campbell for many years. While the spacious lawns and banks of trees make this area a pleasant location for a cluster of schools, it may not have been the most prudent place to put them, says Fuller, who survived a bout with cervical cancer 20 years ago. She is not sure what caused her illness.

Fuller keeps an aerial map of the military base from the 1940s behind a bookshelf in her cozy office, which she has adorned with children's art and photographs of her blond grandchildren. The plan is dotted with the locations of long-dormant ammunition dumps and artillery ranges near the current settings of the schools.

The map brings to mind Love Canal, says Fuller, referring to the notorious environmental disaster in Niagara Falls, N.Y., in 1978, when many people became sick after being exposed to toxic chemical waste that had been buried in a ravine. Though she doubts anyone on the base intended to cause harm, Fuller says, "people here just dumped waste by the bucket."

In a subsequent interview, she said, "No one would have built a school here had they known."

Military reservation officials acknowledge that for two decades after World War II, the military routinely dumped airplane fuel, heavy metals from ammunition ranges, and other industrial pollutants into landfills across the base. Over the years, coaxed by the rain and gravity, the contaminated liquid seeped hundreds of feet down into the aquifer, according to the EPA.

Toxic exposure levels from hazardous-waste sites are typically low, making it difficult to demonstrate a clear health impact.

The military says these waste-disposal methods were typical because, at the time, the substances were not considered to be particularly hazardous.

Today, Air Force officials say they sympathize with people's concerns, but caution that there's a great deal of misinformation floating around. Although the well on the base was closed in 1985 because it contained harmful chemicals, there is no scientific evidence showing that the pollutants caused any health problems for people who drank the well water, military officials say.

A 1991 study by Boston University researchers suggested that the incidence of cancer in Bourne may be linked to environmental factors, but suspicions don't equal proof, says Robin Wagner, an epidemiologist for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR, a federal agency based in Atlanta.

One impediment to finding a clear connection, say Wagner and the Boston University researchers, is that toxic exposure levels from hazardous-waste sites are typically very low, making it difficult to demonstrate a clear health impact. People exposed to toxic materials may also come into contact with many chemicals simultaneously, complicating the research further, Wagner says.

"There's a lot of uncertainty, and it's very difficult to demonstrate a cause and effect from these low levels of exposure," she says.

But some teachers and principals who have worked in the base schools don't need hard data to convince them that something is awry.

For them, one set of statistics says enough: The incidence of cancer in Bourne was 17 percent higher than what researchers would have expected based on figures for the state as a whole, according to a Massachusetts Department of Public Health study of cancer incidences and rates between 1987 and 1992. Breast-cancer incidences in Bourne were 32 percent higher than in the rest of Massachusetts, and lung-cancer occurrences for women living in Bourne were 78 percent above the state average, said Robert Knorr, an epidemiologist with the state health department.

Many Bourne school employees attach names and faces to those numbers.

The incidence of cancer in Bourne was 17 percent higher than what researchers would have expected based on figures for the state as a whole.

"I know several teachers at base schools that have developed cancer, and I worry about what's going to happen down the road," says Jan Kemmitt, who has been a 2nd grade teacher at the Otis Memorial School on the base for 14 years. Kemmitt arrived at the school six years before the military reservation landed on the EPA's national-priorities list of hazardous sites in 1989.

Kemmitt remembers in 1985 when the military closed down one of the wells that supplied drinking water to the Lyle, Otis, and Stone schools after military and local health officials discovered that the water harbored unsafe levels of perchlorethylene, or PCE, a solvent that has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals.

When it was closed, the well contained 42 parts of PCE per billion; more than five parts per billion is considered an unacceptable level by the AFCEE.

The schools subsequently were hooked up to another base well with a clean water supply. Although teachers and students are no longer dipping into the polluted water 150 feet beneath them to brew their coffee and wash their hands, the schools' well is still tested each month. Military officials say the schools' water supply is perfectly safe.

"The contamination is well below the school; it's sliding quietly underneath," says Minior, the senior environmental engineer with AFCEE. He adds that it holds no risk for Bourne schoolchildren.

As for the dirt from the Campbell School becoming a toxic cloud, Minior says there is no danger because there's no real exposure. "The [contaminated] dirt is in the soil beneath the grass," he says.

In addition, officials with AFCEE, which assumed control of the cleanup effort from the National Guard last year, say they are taking every precaution to minimize exposure risks.

This month, teams of engineers, construction workers, and hydrogeologists will continue to fan out across the sprawling military installation and several Cape Cod towns affected by the pollution.

Since the cleanup operation began in 1989, the military has installed more than 2,500 monitoring wells on and off base to track the 10 plumes, or streams of contaminated ground water, that flow through the Cape's sandy soil. Air Force workers continually draw samples from these marker wells to enable mapmakers to outline and gauge the movement of the contaminated streams, which so far have polluted 70 billion gallons of ground water, according to AFCEE.

About 150 parents and teachers are appealing to their neighbors to relocate students to what they consider to be safer ground.

The military also has erected three water-treatment facilities to extract, filter, and reintroduce clean water into the ground.

"We want to stop these plumes in their tracks to keep them from migrating," says Lee E. Perry, an environmental engineer for AFCEE, touring the facility with several colleagues. Inside the vast building, four huge cylinders of carbon filters tower over workers in hard hats. "We have confidence that the water we pump up will be pumped down clean," Perry says.

Even so, the AFCEE estimates it will take about 50 years to purify all of the contaminated water in the aquifer because the geological complexity of the western edge of the Cape makes the water move fast and in different directions at the same time.

Perry and other engineers involved in the cleanup note that tracking the migration of the plumes is not a precise science. "Nature isn't exact," Perry says. "There's no way to tell what's in the ground everywhere."

Just last month, the state health department found that 27 acres of cranberry bogs in the neighboring town of Mashpee had been contaminated by airplane fuel bubbling up from the aquifer.

Most times, ground water goes in a linear direction, but here it's like spokes of a wheel, says Johanna Hunter, an EPA spokeswoman.

Hunter admits the cleanup effort has moved at a sluggish pace in the past. The military has spent more than $200 million since it began in 1989, and three-quarters of the money has been used for research, according to AFCEE.

Karen Florini, a senior attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, a Washington-based environmental-research group, contends that the EPA moves most slowly when confronting federal government bureaucracy. "When EPA is dealing with private parties they can say, 'Just shut up and do it,' but when Uncle Sam is wearing two hats it's easier to have arguments," Florini says.

However, Hunter contends that the Air Force has made "significant strides" since it took over cleanup responsibility from the National Guard last year--a move the EPA facilitated.

About 150 parents and teachers nonetheless are appealing to their neighbors to relocate students to what they consider to be safer ground. So far, members of the informal coalition seem to be waging an uphill battle, despite regular reports in the local paper, the Cape Cod Times, about the contamination and the slow pace of the cleanup and a spate of town gossip about what federal, state, and military officials could be hiding.

Attempts to raise a $40 million bond to build two new schools off the base two years ago went nowhere.

Like a few remaining New England towns, Bourne is still made up of a collection of seven villages with names like Cataumet, Sagamore, and Buzzards Bay. Each seaside community has its own individual personality, which sometimes makes it a challenge to reach consensus.

Especially when the subject is money.

Though it's home to some of the wealthiest Americans in the summer months, Bourne's year-round population of 16,000 is mostly working-class. Residents work in the retail shops and restaurants that drive the tourist industry. They farm the cranberry bogs and work the fishing boats. Many Bourne residents are retirees living on fixed incomes.

Patti Parker, the president of Bourne's PTA and the mother of a 5th grader at Stone Middle School, has spent several years campaigning to raise money for an off-base middle school. She and other parents have organized meetings to lobby residents, and they have handed out fliers at libraries and post offices.

They argue that a new school would yield educational, as well as environmental, benefits. The current base facilities are military designs that weren't built to accommodate modern education reform ideas, Parker says.

And, she adds, with Campbell closed, the remaining schools are also cramped. Some 7th grade classes at Lyle Middle School are now held in a converted shower room with tile walls, and music classes are taught on a narrow strip of stage between the auditorium and the cafeteria.

Despite those arguments, attempts to raise a $40 million bond to build two new schools off the base two years ago went nowhere. And last summer, when the town leaders put forward a $15 million proposal to build one new school, that too was defeated.

"It was strictly a financial issue," says Haydon Coggeshall, one of Bourne's three selectmen, who voted for the measure. "People felt we didn't need [a new school], and just said fix up the schools that they have," he says.

Though he supports relieving the overcrowding, Coggeshall doesn't think there's a health threat on the base.

"I have two kids out there, and in reality there's no problem. There are bases far worse than this one," he says.

The battle to move the schools has already claimed one casualty: Bourne's superintendent.

Federal and local decisions have presented roadblocks to relocate the three schools.

"I'm ready for a change, and there are a number of people who are ready to have someone new," John O'Brien, Bourne's superintendent, said last month. He plans to leave at the end of this year, his 10th as head of the 2,500-student district.

Overall, Bourne students perform relatively well academically, O'Brien says. On a recent state test, 98 percent of 3rd graders passed or excelled in reading. Parents often praise the quality and dedication of the teaching staff. But, O'Brien says, "when you try to build a school and that fails, you get associated with that."

Coggeshall says the town may have been reluctant to release local funds because the federal government hasn't fulfilled its obligations to Bourne.

Under the federal impact-aid program, the town of Bourne is entitled to reimbursement for educating the children of military personnel since the military facility operates tax-free. Today, military-dependent children make up about 14 percent of the student body in Bourne. At one point, about half of the children in the Bourne schools had parents in the military. According to O'Brien, Congress has failed to fully reimburse Bourne for years, and the town is owed more than $10 million for educating military children over the past 12 years.

Last month, parents and teachers sent Congress a stack of 130 letters written by children asking lawmakers for money to move them to a safer place. McAra, whose daughter Lindy attends the Stone School, says such tactics are unfortunately necessary to get people's attention. "There's nobody overseeing the safety of the schools, and there's no ongoing safety net for families," she says.

"Here you have a community that is dealing with financial constraints at all levels of government," says Mark Forest, an aide to U.S. Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., who has been lobbying for the funds. "The people of Bourne, Massachusetts, have been carrying the weight, and the feds need to ante up," he says.

The Bourne school board and the selectmen are expected to present a two-part proposal soon to their representatives in Washington to urge Congress to reimburse the town.

One national expert on impact aid says that Bourne's first pitch to win $10 million in back payments won't get far in Congress.

While they wait for Congress to act, some in Bourne are continuing to push for more environmental research.

"They can get in line with almost every other district in the country who says [the federal government] owes them back payments," says John Forkenbrock, the executive director of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, which is based in Washington. Forkenbrock estimates that 1,450 districts are owed about $2 billion under the impact-aid program because Congress hasn't fully funded the program since the late 1960s.

Bourne's second proposal is a little more unusual. It urges the community's representatives in Washington to lobby for a $10 million payment for the Campbell School. The town leaders say federal officials sold them the school with the understanding that it would be habitable, and the property is now condemned.

Forkenbrock is more hopeful about this appeal.

"The federal government is reneging on an obvious responsibility to these kids," he says. "Now that they find themselves with a lemon in the garage [the district] can make a strong case that the feds should get them a facility they can use."

While they wait for Congress to act, some in Bourne are continuing to push for more environmental research.

The Bourne school board is expected to vote soon on a plan to mail health-screening questionnaires to all parents with children in the Bourne public schools. The survey, the beginning of a longitudinal study by the ATSDR, will ask parents about their families' health and whether they believe they or their children have been exposed to health hazards in their homes or at school.

But Wagner of the toxic-substances agency, one of the study's researchers, cautions local residents that this is only a first step toward finding out whether environmental hazards have or could trigger illness among Bourne residents.

"There may be an answer," she says, "but it's not going to be tomorrow."

Vol. 17, Issue 08, Page 20-25

Published in Print: October 22, 1997, as Danger Below?
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