Groundwater Contamination Sparks Possible Suit Against Dartmouth
Environmental lawyers invite Hanover property owners to join legal action
Three lawyers from the New York law firm of Weitz and Luxenberg met on Sunday with about 75 Hanover property owners who are concerned that contaminated groundwater leaching from the college's Rennie Farm is decreasing the value of their holdings.
Property owners had been told earlier this fall that the chemical 1,4-dioxane had migrated off the Dartmouth land into the groundwater. Rennie Farm, off Hanover Center Road, was used as a burial ground and possible chemical dumping ground from the mid-1960s until 1978. Animal remains used in medical research were disposed of at the farm and donated human cadavers were buried on the farm after the bodies had been used in medical school classes.
The immediate problem facing the farm's neighbors is one of uncertainty concerning the value of their homes. Dartmouth released a map of the Groundwater Management Zone -- and that has had a negative impact on property values both inside and outside of the zone.
The issue is legacy pollution from the 60s and 70s, said attorney Robin Greenwald. “No one knew about it in 2009. Now they do. How much less is the property worth? If people can move somewhere else where there isn’t an imminent risk they will. That’s what drives property values.”
The bIg question facing the lawyers and Dartmouth is defining the zone of injury. Experts are hired by both sides to study hydrology, where dumping was done and look at what was dumped. The task isn’t simple and it is expensive. Greenwald dismissed the accuracy of the map drawn by Dartmouth. “Polluters always draw the circles smaller” she said. “They always draw the map as narrow as possible.”
“There is more to the real estate market than a map like this,” Greenwald said referring to Dartmouth’s contamination map. She has already been told of home buyers pulling out of sales agreements. Real estate agents have reported little interest among buyers for properties that face possible contamination in the decades to come.
Attorney William Walsh raised the possibility of the additional risk of other chemicals moving off Rennie Farm—in particular a chemical called TCA. The primary use of 1,4-dioxane is to stabilize TCA.
“There should be TCA coming out,” said Walsh. “1,4-Dioxane is the canary in the coal mine. It is a precursor to other contaminants. It is the first thing you see. It doesn’t adhere to soil. It will leach out first. It will move along with the water into the aquifer. The TCA sits at the base of aquifer and moves slower."
Although Dartmouth has been paying for neighbors to test their water for 1,4-dioxane, it has not been testing for other chemicals.
Greenwald’s team of lawyers came to Hanover to invite the neighbors to join in either a class action or mass action lawsuit against Dartmouth for compensation for the drop in value of their property. The lawyers would work on contingency and collect their fee only if they win. The fact that three lawyers drove from New York to the Courtyard Marriott in Lebanon on a Sunday says something about the strength of any future case. “I think there is no question your community is having a real legitimate impact on property values,” said Greenwald.
Greenwald followed up the Sunday meeting with an email on Wednesday to the neighbors saying, “If you are interested in pursuing a legal action against Dartmouth for property damages, then you will need to sign a retainer agreement This is the document that creates the attorney-client privilege, including our communications, and allows us to investigate and litigate an action on your behalf.”