Parsons Hill

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(Host) Contaminated drinking water at an apartment complex in Castleton is currently the subject of complex litigation, and commentator Jeff Wennberg thinks that the case involves a number of concerns that are greater than local.

(Wennberg) It’s been twenty years since the Parsons Hill apartments first opened their doors to low income families in Castleton and for sixteen years over a hundred low-income residents may have been exposed to unsafe levels of dangerous chemicals.

Immediately upon taking occupancy in 1983, residents began complaining about the water being discolored and having an odd odor and taste. The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources had the water tested and found that it contained 790 parts per billion of tetracholororethelene, or PCE. The U.S. standard for PCE is 5 parts per billion, and the Vermont standard is 0.7 parts per billion.

The ANR hired a consultant to find the source of the PCE. Despite two separate investigations no source was found, but the Agency instructed Parsons Hill developer and owner Yvonne Rooney to notify the residents not to drink the water. Though the state continued to send periodic “do not drink” notices to Mrs. Rooney, at no time did the state directly notify the residents or confirm that Mrs. Rooney had warned them. Residents have reported suffering from ailments such as nosebleeds, diarrhea, urinary disorders and upper respiratory problems, some of which have been associated with chronic exposure to PCE. This much is not in dispute.

According to her lawyer, Mrs. Rooney told the residents, but residents deny that they were notified in 1983, or at any time over a 14 year period.

In 1997 resident Candace Willard sought my assistance in providing a temporary water supply. She also sought the help of Patricia Donnelly, an independent consultant. Donnelly quickly found the spec sheet for “Koppers Tank Solution” in the state’s Parson’s Hill file, where it had rested undisturbed for eighteen years. The tar-based sealant was used to line the drinking water storage tank, and the spec sheet clearly stated that the Tank Solution contains PCE. Further investigation revealed that PCE had been found in water systems containing “Koppers Tank Solution” around the country.

Finally, after 16 years, the state has replaced the tank, the water has cleared up, and the lawsuits are now flying in all directions. Curiously, the state is not a defendant.

Back when I was Rutland’s mayor, I was the person ultimately responsible for the safety of the drinking water upon which 20,000 people relied. Had Rutland allowed similar levels of PCE to contaminate the habitat of fish eggs, the state would have been intolerant of any delay in remediation.

Vermont prides herself on protection of the environment. The Parsons Hill case suggests that this priority may not extend to the offspring of the poor.

This is Jeff Wennberg in Rutland.

Jeff Wennberg is a former mayor of Rutland.

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