Thursday, June 14, 2007

Getting the Lead Out

An announcement was made this week that the state of NH is fining the Dept. of Transportation over $300,000 for the illegal dumping of lead paint and lead paint chips at four state property sites in Franklin, Concord, and Ashland. The dumping has gone on for 25 years. The DOT going to finance an independent audit and the cost of a consultant to come up with an environmental management system – which, when added to the cost of cleanup carries an estimated price tag of $1.5 million, which means it will likely be a whole lot more.

The worst incident was in 1980, when two 1-ton pallets of lead based paint and epoxy were dumped into the foundation of a paint shed that was being built in Franklin. Apparently the dumpers were supervisors associated with a state bridge maintenance unit. Some have since retired, one recently resigned, and others will be. State Attorney General Kelly Ayotte has said that no criminal charges will be brought, since many of the incidents took place a long time ago. The dumping began in 1980 and continued through 2005. According to the Nashua Telegraph, incidents in 1996 and 2004 were covered up by a supervisor, during a previous investigation.

That there was a previous investigation makes one wonder what ever became of it. This was a bridge unit that had the training and the budget to handle waste properly – so, why didn’t they? Acting DOT Commissioner Charles O’Leary called it “a breakdown in the character” of the employees. It sounds like a pattern of systematic institutional abuse and cover-up that badly needs exposure to sunlight and taxpayer scrutiny.

The worst of the dumping took place at two sites in Franklin. In addition to the paint and epoxy that went into the foundation of the paint shed, paint chips were buried, dumped on the ground, and poured into holes in concrete floors. There will be a public hearing in Franklin on June 25, where Dept. of Environmental Services Commissioner Thomas Burack hopes to have soil samples. There are eight homes that abut the two Franklin sites. There is concern about lead dust in the air, but the potential for lead polluting the water is being downplayed. In a Union Leader story, unnamed officials were quoted as saying “The houses are hooked to city water and sewer systems and don’t use groundwater.” They don’t? Where do these “officials” think the water in their pipes comes from?

A cursory search about lead contamination in groundwater turned up an EPA website that warns that 10-20 percent of total lead exposure in babies and young children comes through drinking water. Too much lead in the body can cause brain, kidney, nervous system, and red cell damage. Babies and young children are most vulnerable to lead poisoning. Old plumbing systems may have lead pipes, brass fittings can leach lead into water, and lead solder is often used on copper pipes. Add that to high lead content in the water, and the folks in Franklin may be in real danger. The cavalier attitude of the nameless officials about the potential for damage to the groundwater is appalling.

Indeed, the whole story is appalling. This comes from the utter disregard that too many have for the environment. Apparently we have yet to learn that we dump toxins into the ground at our peril. There’s always a price to be paid. This is also a classic NH story – one that we see time and time again. I’m not sure why it is this way, but rather than pay the ounce of prevention, we choose to pay for the pound of cure, and we never, never learn.

The Union Leader story mentioned our very own Representative Gene Chandler, who apparently complained that these fines take money from highway maintenance. He’s annoyed that roads aren’t being paved because people at DOT didn’t do what they were supposed to. Indeed, all of us should be wondering how this illegal dumping could go on for 25 years without coming to light? How was this covered up, and by whom? How high up the food chain does the cover-up go? Where was the oversight of this department? Attorney General Ayotte should reconsider the decision not to bring legal charges against these people. They’ve committed crimes, not only against the environment, but against the taxpayers of our state. They’ve damaged the public trust. These people are state employees – and means that the taxpayers will be paying their retirement pensions, at the same time we fund the cleanup that they caused. There’s something wrong with that picture.

We cannot continue to treat the planet as though there were no consequences to what we do. We cannot continue to let polluters and illegal dumpers get away with it. It is 2007, and the NH DOT is just now getting around to coming up with an environmental management system? The REAL NH advantage is our state’s natural beauty. We destroy that beauty at our peril. It’s not just our state economy at risk – it’s the health of our residents. That’s a hefty and unnecessary price to pay. In the words of the late, great writer Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: “We could have saved the Earth but we were too damned cheap.” We can choose not to be able to paraphrase that quote to fit NH – and we had better. Our future depends on it.

“Oh Beautiful for smoggy skies, insecticided grain,
For strip-mined mountain’s majesty, above the asphalt plain.
America, America, man sheds his waste on thee,
And hides the pines with billboard signs, from sea to oily sea.”
George Carlin

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