The outbreak of a mysterious illness involving more than a dozen students at Le Roy junior/high school in western New York has revealed that state regulators routinely fail to report toxic spills in a database that is supposed to provide the public with access to that type of information. According to a press release issued by Catskills Citizens, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) never reported an incident where two tanks spilled brine onto the athletic fields at the Le Roy school last July.
According to Catskills Citizens, the brine that spilled from the two tanks had been pumped out of the ground along with natural gas. As we’ve reported in the past, brine is a produced water that is a byproduct of the natural gas drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. It often contains chlorides, bromides, and toxic heavy metals, and can be radioactive, according to Catskills Citizens.
The brine spill at the Le Roy school was discovered by DEC inspectors on July 13. According to their press release, Catskills Citizens asked the agency if the spill should have been included in its online incident database. DEC Citizen Participation Specialist, Linda Vera, suggested that the omission of the Le Roy spill was not an oversight, but departmental policy, stating that a brine spill is not the same as a chemical or petroleum spill.
According to Catskill Citizens, because the Le Roy spill was not reported, the public has no way of knowing how much fluid made its way onto the school’s athletic fields. Vera maintained that only one tank leaked fluid onto the fields, but footage broadcast by CNN clearly shows dead vegetation around both “brine” tanks, one near the football field, one near the baseball field, Catskills Citizens said.
The environmental impact of the spill is also unclear, as CNN reported that trees in the vicinity of the leaks are dead. Vera told Catskills Citizens that “minor damage was observed to surrounding vegetation”.
And of course, no one has answered the most pressing question: Could the spill could be connected to the mysterious ailment plaguing 13 Le Roy students? The Le Roy students, all but one of them girls, started developing tic-like symptoms last fall. Some of the girls in Le Roy have been diagnosed with conversion disorder, a psychological illness caused by stress, but the Le Roy Central School District is conducting more environmental tests in an effort to allay parental concerns.
The brine spill is not the only suspect being eyed in that outbreak. Some experts have focused on a 1970s train derailment that spilled more than 30,000 gallons of the industrial solvent trichloroethene (TCE) about 3 1/2 miles from the school. The location of the accident was declared a federal Superfund site.
Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that out of 80 barrels of waste recently tested at the site of the derailment, only one showed trace elements of TCE. The remaining 79 barrels did not contain TCE or any other hazardous substances. There are about 240 55-gallon metal drums at the spill site, and the EPA is continuing to test the remaining barrels. The agency also said all drums will be removed from the site by the end of the month.