Tuesday, October 31, 2006


You know that your state agencies have failed when the fact that lead doesn't cause cancer comes as news to a neighborhood.

It was a sign of just how irresponsible the DEP has been that Assistant Director Rob Bell's comment that "lead does not cause cancer" was received with stunned silence and a tangible sense of shock in the room at last night's meeting at the Keefe Center. Even so, the broader point that all of the health risks have been wildly overstated at Newhall failed to sink in. Indeed, those of us in attendance were treated to a bizarre, almost medieval ritual of residents attributing everything from lupus to allergies and canine cancer to the dirt that lies under their homes. Had a stranger walked in, he might have drawn the reasonable conclusion that what was needed here was not soil remediation, but perhaps exorcism or the careful and systematic application of leeches to the body. Had it been Cotton Mather running the meeting rather than Dr. Hamid, we probably would have found a witch to burn. In fact, small as Rob Bell's step was, it was nice to finally see a state employee have enough courage to admit that there was at least ONE bad thing that the soil in Newhall was probably not responsible for.

Why this sudden act of courage from Mr. Bell? After all, up until now the DEP has seen fit to keep the fears of contamination swirling, and even to stoke them. They've brought in the Love Canal activists. They've paid Elizabeth Hayes and the Newhall Coalition to stoke the fires of delusion. They've encouraged wild claims of groundskeepers disappearing into 20-foot-deep sinkholes and an apparent epidemic among dogs, all in an effort to whip up concerns in the neighborhood to the point where the DEP can say that "the people" demand remediation. Why the sudden change of heart? Why come clean now? Why start telling the truth?

Because the DEP is in a difficult position: It's not easy to have your cake and eat it too. They need to scare people enough so that they demand a multi-million dollar remediation and don't question the DEP's absurd standards, but not scare residents so much that they aren't willing to leave most of the landfill under their properties. The DEP also can't admit that any real harm was done to anyone's health, because then someone might sue them for having waited over 20 years after their first environmental assessment before doing anything about the problem. You have to scare the people, but not so much that they can hold you responsible. That's a fine line.

It's also despicable. The role of a responsible state agency is to tell people what the real risks are. If the DEP had spent its millions of dollars in public involvement doing that, we wouldn't be here. We wouldn't be on the verge of losing our neighborhood. The Town of Hamden wouldn't be on the verge of a massive transfer of wealth to a few well-connected contractors who get paid to move dirt. We and our neighbors wouldn't be the first guinea pigs in a new generation of residential "brownfield redevelopment" that will keep the DEP and its contractors in business for decades to come. We wouldn't be living in fear. No, without the wild distortions and exaggeration of risks, we'd just be the same old folks who have to worry about eating too much, drinking too much, driving too fast, global warming, getting old, Dr. Hamid's efforts to construct a radical Islamic Madrasah in the neighborhood and all of the real things that might harm us before we die.

But who could make any money off of that?

Happy Halloween! Boooooooooooooooooo!