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Explore our latest coverage of environmental issues, climate change and more.

Rutland Family Frustrated By Pesticide Cleanup

A foster family that’s suing Vermont officials over a botched bedbug extermination says they’re not getting enough answers about ongoing cleanup efforts at their Rutland City house. The family says only two of their home’s three floors are being cleaned and they say they’ll never feel comfortable living there again.

Neil and Patricia Whitney, their 16-year-old son Caleb and a foster daughter have been out of their Rutland City house for a year. Patricia Whitney says they had to leave in a hurry last April after their home was heavily sprayed with a toxic pesticide, allegedly by an exterminator hired by the state. “On the first two floors, everything’s gone,” she says, “except for a few family heirlooms that we tried to save.”

This week, contractors working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are moving those few things out of the home as part of a $2.5 million clean up that EPA officials say will make the Whitney’s home and up to 14 others safe to live in again.    

“The process as I understand it,” says Patricia Whitney, “is that they will spray Steri-light on the walls and floors that are exposed now while the carpeting is gone and everything is gone.” After a triple washing, the EPA will put several coats of primer, paint and sealer on the walls and trim.

While the cleanup is expected to be completed by the end of April, the Whitney’s attorney Karl Anderson believes it will be incomplete. “I think the big frustration right now is the EPA is refusing to clean the basement and the contents of the basement.” And that’s a problem, he says, because last spring the state found extremely high levels of contamination in the basement.  

"We can never move back into the house." - Patricia Whitney

The basement is also where the furnace that pushes hot air through the house is located. Patricia Whitney says her son has health issues and she’s not convinced the EPA’s efforts can guarantee his safety. “We can never move back into the house,” she says. “I took Caleb to the doctor last week and we spoke about this subject and she said given they’re not cleaning the heating system and they’re not cleaning the basement and that she could never support Caleb moving back into the house.” And Whitney added, “even if they did that she could not support that because they’re not really cleaning it they’re encapsulating it.“

 But Jeanethe Falvey, a community involvement coordinator with the EPA, disagrees. “We know that our current clean up approach can significantly reduce the risk of exposure in that household and all the households we’re addressing.”

While Falvey sympathizes with the Whitneys, she says their lawyer isn’t entirely accurate with regard to contamination levels in the basement. She says state inspectors did get a high reading there, but she says it was on one particular object and did not reflect the room as a whole. “And when EPA went back in to do their sampling and characterization we were not able to get that same result on the same item,” she says. “We do have to act on our information and so the levels we found in the basement did not justify further action at this time.”

But if the basement isn’t contaminated, attorney Karl Anderson wonders why the family has not been able to get a clear answer about what to do with belongings that have been stored there.

“The process has been frustrating,” he says.  Considering the value of the home and the fact that it will be nearly impossible to sell in the future, he wonders about the practicality of trying to clean it. “Because our position was it would be more cost effective and make more sense if they just tore the house down and gave us some money towards rebuilding a house that wasn’t contaminated, rather than cleaning and encapsulating a poisonous house,” says Anderson.

Jeanethe Falvey says the EPA has on occasion torn down heavily contaminated structures, but she says in the Whitney’s case such drastic measures were not warranted. “We looked at the levels in their home and we know that they can be addressed and we know that it can become a livable space again and unfortunately that’s where our authority applies.”

Falvey says eight other homeowners and tenants affected by this situation have been successfully moved back in. If the Whitney’s choose not to live in their house again, she says that’s up to them.

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