Tue, Mar 16, 2004 - Page 16 News List

In IBM's birthplace, fears over vapors

Residents of a small community feel abandoned by a corporate giant that left behind an environmental mess for them to live in

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , ENDICOTT, NEW YORK

A large area of Endicott, New York, encompassing the downtown and stretching across the village was polluted by industrial toxins. The chemicals continue to produce vapors that waft into hundreds of basements. Occurring over decades, the pollution is traceable at least in part to IBM.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

This village, best known as the birthplace of IBM, has an unusual look these days. Venting systems, with white plastic tubing that runs from basements to roofs, sprout from 377 houses and businesses. Many houses are for sale, but there are few buyers.

"This area is taboo now," said Tim Davis, who lives on Monroe Avenue. "And it's going to stay that way."

Davis lives in what residents call "the plume" -- 129.5 hectares encompassing the downtown area and stretching across the village, all of which were polluted by industrial toxic substances. The chemicals contaminated soil and leached into groundwater. And they continue to produce vapors that waft into hundreds of basements.

Occurring over decades, the pollution is traceable at least in part to IBM, which used common solvents in its circuit board assembly.

The venting systems were all paid for by IBM, which two decades ago employed 12,000 workers in Endicott. Now 1,700 collect IBM paychecks here. Still, residents say they feel trapped in virtually unsellable homes, where they fear the prolonged effects of the vapors on the health of their families.

"Your house acts as a kind of chimney" for the vapors, which have tested positive for the contaminant trichloroethene, or TCE, said Alan Turnbull, 69, who in 2002 created the Residents Action Group of Endicott, also known as RAGE, after his wife, Donna Turnbull, 57, was found to have throat cancer. Donna Turnbull does not smoke, and she used to exercise regularly in her finished basement. Now, she rarely ventures down the basement stairs.

That the TCE found in Endicott, a suspected carcinogen, has been measured at very low levels is scant comfort to those worried about more than two decades of exposure. "Oh, sure, we're scared to death," said Donna Turnbull, who has lived in her Cleveland Avenue home for 21 years. "We know the chemicals are dangerous, but we don't know how dangerous or the long-term effects."

Results of air-quality tests from homes in 2002 prompted the state to announce in January that the Endicott pollution was more serious than previously believed.

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation said it would upgrade Endicott's status from Class 4 -- meaning that the pollution source is no longer a problem, but is still being monitored -- to Class 2 -- a significant threat to the environment or health. The reclassification, backed by US Representative Maurice Hinchey, a Democrat who represents the area, was a victory for citizen groups.

Despite the change, state health officials cannot say whether air or water pollution in Endicott has actually caused any health problems.

Village officials say tests show that the water is safe to drink And the venting systems are effective, according to Michael Fraser, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Conservation. Still, many residents remain pessimistic.

"This is going to become a dead town, no doubt about it," said Matt Latessa, 62, who owns a house in the plume and a men's hair salon on Monroe Avenue. Aging business owners such as Latessa, who wants to move to Florida, and families that bought starter homes in the plume feel trapped. "We're being held hostage," he said.

No buyers

Along with for-sale signs on front lawns, the venting systems, which emit a humming sound, have become a fact of life. Davis' house on Monroe Avenue, in the heart of the plume, is one of those that is vented.

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