A warehouse in Tangipahoa Parish closed after hundreds of residents were evacuated from a nursing home due to Hurricane Ida.
State environmental officials say contaminants in the site’s groundwater have been reduced to levels that pose no serious risk to health inside the warehouse, especially to occupants in short term, and issued a letter in 2015 stating that the agency had no objections to residential uses for the property.
But other experts question the wisdom of housing vulnerable people at a site with such a history, saying even brief exposure to small amounts of harmful chemicals could cause problems like breathing problems and rashes. for people who are already in poor health.
“It would be like putting a very sick person in an area that is going to make them even sicker,” said Wilma Subra, an environmental scientist who works as a technical director for the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, an advocacy group.
Hot, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in the converted Waterbury business complex prompted state officials to revoke licenses held by Bob Dean for the seven nursing homes evacuated before Ida. Seven of the 843 people taken there died as a result of the storm and at least 50 were hospitalized.
State health inspectors found residents were neglected in the Independence Warehouse, lying in feces and urine for days, many of them on mattresses on a floor in the ‘flooded warehouse.
Now, the story of the facility and the persistent contamination of the groundwater surrounding it has become another part of one of the many lawsuits against Dean, his companies and the state Department of Health for the aborted evacuation effort.
New file claims Dean failed to fulfill his obligation under the nursing home‘s âResidents Bill of Rightsâ to notify his residents that they would be taken to a building where they could be exposed to products toxic chemicals. The lawsuit alleges that Dean publicly misrepresented the old Waterbury warehouse and outbuildings as an “alternative care facility”, a former “Fruit of the Loom” warehouse or a former “Febreze” factory.
“This is critical information that should have been shared with residents and their families,” said Don Massey, counsel for a plaintiff who filed the complaint. “But instead, it was hidden from them.”
John McLindon, a Baton Rouge attorney representing Dean, said state agencies had no issues with the location of the shelter, citing the 2015 letter from the State Department for Environmental Quality and the Ministry of Health’s approval of the evacuation plan for the group of nurses. houses.
He added that Dean’s businesses had never received any prior complaints from the public or government agencies about the installation.
“We have no evidence that there was ever a problem with the fumes or anything like that,” he said.
State Department of the Environment records show that for more than 30 years, under Waterbury and a former owner, Cline-Buckner, the buildings were used to mix chemicals and package them in spray cans for them. perfumes and pesticides.
Some of the chemicals stored there in large quantities have been defined by federal regulations as hazardous materials, according to Waterbury’s emergency plans. The operations ended in 2011.
Hazardous chemicals included industrial solvents tetrachloroethene and methyl chloroform and the pesticide Propoxur, according to annual reports.
About a decade ago, producers voluntarily withdrew Propoxur from its use indoors and in flea collars due to its potential toxicity to humans, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. environment.
The groundwater contamination dates back to before 1985, when the site was managed by Cline-Buckner, according to DEQ records. Trichlorethylene and vinyl chloride have been among the pollutants cleaned up under DEQ supervision since 1987.
Trichlorethylene, an industrial solvent, is a common contaminant in groundwater and a frequent subject of long-term post-industrial clean-ups.
Probably carcinogenic, it decomposes underground to vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen. Both can vaporize from groundwater and seep upward into homes, even through cracks in concrete slabs, according to environmental regulators.
Contamination of the old Waterbury factory has triggered lawsuits in the past from neighboring landowners who have settled out of court.
The latest reports to DEQ show that the contamination continues to drop and has been removed in some places, but a few areas that are not directly under the old Waterbury buildings continue to have high levels of vinyl chloride and trichlorethylene.
In an interview last week, Fernando Iturralde – who oversees the cleanup of underground pollution for DEQ – said it was unlikely that steam could enter buildings from still heavily contaminated areas.
In 2015, the real estate investment company that sold the property to Dean asked DEQ to green light the site for residential use, saying a company was interested in converting it into a home escape shelter. pension, according to correspondence from DEQ. DEQ geologists have issued a letter of “no objection” to this use.
After years of cleaning up, the groundwater contamination posed no risk as the levels were low enough and what was left had no way to expose people, the letter said. In addition, no one has used the shallow aquifers for drinking water, DEQ noted.
Three months after the March 2015 letter, one of Dean’s companies purchased the property for $ 918,000, according to Tangipahoa Parish land records. The Windsor Investment Group retained responsibility for groundwater monitoring and funded the purchase of the building.
DEQ’s Iturralde said it is highly unlikely that the flooding that soaked the mattresses and floors of buildings during Ida would contain pollutants from the underground contamination remaining elsewhere at the site. DEQ officials said they had never tested the interiors of buildings for fumes from underground contamination.
State health officials declined to say whether they had considered the site’s environmental history before approving Dean’s plans to temporarily house the residents there.
âWhile there are several ongoing investigations into this event, including our own rigorous review, I am unable to answer most of your questions at this time,â said Kevin Litten, spokesperson for the agency.
Litten also declined to say whether the health department contacted DEQ about the site. DEQ spokesman Greg Langley said there was no record of formal contact between the agencies.
Subra, the scientist with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, said that in addition to the underground contamination, the fact that dangerous chemicals were mixed inside the facility should be of concern.
A fifth resident of a nursing home who had been moved to a warehouse in Tangipahoa parish before Hurricane Ida has died.
DEQ’s âno objectionâ letter did not address the risk of an indoor spill.
Reports from state health inspectors on visits made during Ida’s evacuation show residents of nursing homes were first housed in three buildings on the former Waterbury site before the floods do not force them to enter the main warehouse.
McLindon, Dean’s lawyer, noted that there had been no chemical mixing in the large warehouse where most of the residents were housed. But he admitted that some residents were, for a time, in a building that contained a chemical mixing room.
He pointed out that the chemical mixing ended 10 years ago.
Former Waterbury employees interviewed recently said the chemical mixing process sometimes produced spills. These spills, they said, were immediately cleaned up.
Measuring up to a few dozen gallons, the spills were generally too small to meet the mandate of reporting to state regulators, former employees said.
One of them, Andrew Truxillo, worked as a chemist at Waterbury from 1998 until shortly before it closed. Truxillo said it would mix batches of up to 4,000 gallons of chemicals at a time in closed tanks.
Spills were typically treated by soaking up chemicals with absorbent blankets which were then placed in hazardous waste containers, he said. Truxillo said he wouldn’t feel comfortable sleeping in the workshop given its history.
âNo hell, no no hell,â he said. “You don’t know what they spilled on this floor years ago.”
Dr Ray Dorsey, professor of neurology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, said the most serious health risks from trichlorethylene – such as Parkinson’s disease and cancer – result from long-term exposure term and not short term.
But he added that the warehouse “would not be the optimal place to house displaced residents” due to the risk of inhaling fumes from residual contamination of nearby groundwater.
Subra also said she was concerned about the possibility of toxic fumes entering buildings, as well as the persistence of spilled chemicals even after being wiped up.
“It was the most inappropriate place. They should never have taken the risk,” she said.