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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Hanover Couple With Contaminated Drinking Water Threatens To Sue Dartmouth College

Rebecca Sananes
Debbie and Richard Higgins sit on the deck of their customized house. Their land has been contaminated by a Dartmouth College hazardous waste site. The school has three months to relocate the couple to a new permanent home or face a lawsuit.

A Hanover family whose drinking water was contaminated by a Dartmouth College hazardous waste burial site is now threatening to sue. The Higgins family is giving the college 90 days to relocate them.

Otherwise, they're threatening a federal lawsuit.

Debbie and Richard Higgins have been in mediation with the college this year, but have not been able to come to amicable terms with the school. They live downhill from the former Dartmouth hazardous burial site and have have been living with the chemical 1-4, dioxane, a probable carcinogen, in their drinking water for over a year.

The contamination originated on Dartmouth property where cadavers, radioactive animal carcasses and scintillation fluid were buried in the 1960s and '70s.

Under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, citizens can bring a lawsuit against persons who have disposed of hazardous waste.

“That particular provision of the environmental law is called the imminent and substantial endangerment provision” said Tony Roisman, one of the lawyers who wrote the letter on behalf of the Higgins to Dartmouth College. “That's what Dartmouth has created and is continuing to persist in creating at the Rennie Farm Site."

Debbie Higgins says she and her husband are still waiting for Dartmouth to appropriately relocate them.

“We cannot drink our water, our well and our land is polluted with a cancer-causing chemical,” she told VPR. “It's been almost 14 months, we're still in the house and we would think that Dartmouth College would want to make this right, but as of yet, they have not.”

"It's been almost 14 months. We're still in the house, and we would think that Dartmouth College would want to make this right, but as of yet, they have not." - Debbie Higgins

In a statement Thursday, Dartmouth says they have previously offered to relocate the Higgins, and have provided them with bottled water and installed a point-of-entry treatment system so that their well water can be safely used.

Dartmouth College now has 90 days to satisfy the Higgins' claims.

The letter was also sent to the state and EPA. Those agencies will have the opportunity to intervene.

Tony Roisman, the Higgins' lawyer, says that's what this grace period is for.

“The EPA or the state environmental agencies decide that they will do the right thing and bring enforcement action directly against Dartmouth for these failures,” Roisman said.

If they do not comply with the demands, Dartmouth could be in federal court early next year.

Dartmouth says they have previously offered to relocate the Higgins, and have provided them with bottled water and installed a treatment system for their well water.

The Higgins' letter also addresses broader concerns, including increased cleanup efforts in the area.

Roisman says in order to meet the Higgins’ requirements, Dartmouth will need to determine "what it dumped, where it dumped it, what happened to it after it was dumped, including a thorough groundwater study.”

After that, Roisman says, Dartmouth will need to determine the magnitude of the problem.

The college already has plans to place a pump and treat system at the site later this fall.

Earlier this month, the chemical was found in another resident's drinking water about a mile away. Dartmouth called this new location "unexpected." The reach of the pump and treat system will not extend to the contaminated properties.

Dartmouth received a draft of the letter late last week. They had the chance to address any inaccuracies or concerns before it was officially filed.

According to Roisman, the college had none.

A spokesperson from Dartmouth says the college is reviewing the letter but had no further comment.

A meeting hosted by Dartmouth College about the potential harms of 1,4-dioxane will be held on Nov. 1. Dartmouth has appointed a doctor employed by Dartmouth-Hitchcock to address community concerns.

Rebecca Sananes was VPR's Upper Valley Reporter. Before joining the VPR Newsroom, she was the Graduate Fellow at WBUR and a researcher on a Frontline documentary.
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