DRACUT — Amid growing concerns about the effect that toxic vapors from the Navy Yard Mills complex in Dracut may have had on the health of hundreds of children who honed their baseball skills at the Future Stars Sports Training Center, the Environmental Protection Agency is giving parents an opportunity to question environmental officials and pediatricians from Boston Children’s Hospital.
The EPA Sunday is holding two informational sessions — at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. — at the Central Fire Station in Dracut to discuss the site, which was found earlier this year to have unacceptably high levels of trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene, which are nonflammable, colorless chemical solvents commonly used to degrease metal parts.
“We know people have busy weekend schedules,” said EPA spokeswoman Kelsey O’Neil. “We thought if we were there for the majority of the day, it would give people time to stop by.”
Parents began to voice health concerns last month after the EPA released the results of indoor air tests conducted between January and April. The tests showed that the levels for the two chemical solvents in certain buildings of the former Navy Yard Mills complex at 76-100 Pleasant St. exceeded the EPA’s guidance levels.
As a result, children and adolescents — primarily from Dracut and surrounding communities, including Billerica and Lowell — who played or practiced in the Future Stars’ main room for eight or more hours a week for several weeks to several months “may be at an increased risk of damage to the immune system” and could be “at risk of autoimmune diseases” because of trichloroethylene exposure, according to a 29-page health assessment prepared by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the federal agency charged with analyzing the test data for the EPA. Tetrachloroethylene can cause developmental, neurological, and respiratory problems and is “reasonably anticipated” to be carcinogenic to humans at high levels, according to the agency.
Children and adolescents who exercised in the facility’s secondary room, where weight-lifting equipment and exercise bikes were used, for six or more hours per week for several weeks to several months may face the same increased health risks, the report said.
Future Stars owner Marc Deschenes, a former minor league baseball player who opened the facility in a rented space at the Navy Yard Mills complex in February 2006, was unaware of the contamination, according to O’Neil. When the EPA shared its site assessment with him in August, Deschenes immediately made arrangements to move out of the complex, she said. Future Stars is now operating in Lowell.
The problems in the complex, a former woolen and cotton mill that used the adjacent Beaver Brook to power its operations, were traced to a former Navy Yard Mills tenant, United Circuits Inc., that was housed at the site from 1971 to 2000. The circuit board manufacturer was cited by state environmental officials for contaminating the property with chemical solvents.
Environmental health experts who have studied the data believe the risk to youths who used the Future Stars facilities is low. At an earlier EPA informational session, held Oct. 4, Megan Sandel, a pediatrician with Boston Children’s Hospital who specializes in environmental health and serves on the EPA’s Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit, said most of the children who took part in Future Stars training sessions were “not exposed at levels that could be meaningful . . . my guess is most kids will never have a problem.”
Still, many parents are outraged that they were not made aware early on of the presence of the toxic vapors at the site, given the fact that there was “a plethora of information regarding an environmental threat at the property,” according to a US District Court ruling issued Sept. 15, 2010. That ruling granted EPA access to the site over the objections of the owner, Tucard LLC.
At an Oct. 18 Board of Health meeting and at the Oct. 4 EPA session, parents questioned why local, state, and federal officials never told them about the toxins.
“Why weren’t parents notified? If we knew, things might have been different,” said Debbie DeVincent of Dracut, whose 15-year-old son attended training sessions at Future Stars for five years. “We wouldn’t have been exposing our children to these chemicals.”
Public records show that town officials were notified on July 21, 2006, that there was an environmental issue at the complex, when the state Department of Environmental Protection sent an e-mail to the Dracut Board of Health advising it of a “release of oil and/or hazardous material” at the Navy Yard Mills site.
According to a notification filed by Tucard with state environmental officials on July 12, 2006, both trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene were present at levels that exceeded their reportable concentration. Town officials said they were confident that state officials were on top of the problem.
“The DEP was addressing it and bringing in the EPA,” said Town Manager Dennis E. Piendak. “There was nothing in the correspondence that required action by the town.”
The current owners of the building, Frank M. Polak and Joseph J. DiCarlo, could not be reached for comment. Business partners in Tucard LLC, the men purchased the site for $2 million in June 2005, Middlesex County assessment records show.
At a Sept. 11 meeting of the Dracut Board of Selectmen, Polak said he would never knowingly endanger a child and that he and DiCarlo were unaware of any environmental issues with the Navy Yard Mills complex until “six or nine months after purchasing the property.”
“The previous owner had done environmental testing and had not disclosed the report to the state,” Polak told selectmen. “Once we were aware of it, we were obligated to report it to the state. When we did so, DEP came in and started working with us.”
A site assessment prepared for Tucard by an environmental consultant in May 2005 and received by the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Northeast Regional Office on May 25, 2007, shows that tetrachloroethylene was present “in soil and ground water” at the 3.8-acre site and that trichloroethylene “was detected in indoor air” at levels that exceeded state guidelines.
In that report, SAK Environmental, a North Andover consulting and engineering firm that specializes in responding to pollution issues, estimated it would cost $40,000 to $180,000 to address the environmental problems, depending on what remedial actions were required.
Polak told selectmen that he and DiCarlo invested $600,000 to address the toxicity levels at the site. However, that work was not enough to earn the buildings a clean bill of health under the EPA’s new guidance levels, which were adopted in August.
“This happens to be the first site where we’ve had to work with these [new] numbers,” O’Neil said, adding that “our numbers are very, very conservative” given “the EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment.”
The EPA started its investigation of the Navy Yard Mills complex in October 2008 at the request of state environmental officials, who asked for federal assistance in analyzing the source contamination, O’Neil said.
“The EPA took immediate action to seal off vapor intrusion pathways, which reduced the concentrations [of the two chemical solvents] by 50 percent,” O’Neil said. “We don’t want anyone to think that we wouldn’t have removed people from a building if there was an immediate threat, but we took care of what needed to be taken care of at the time . . . [now] we want to make sure all of the issues in the long run are addressed as well.”
Work is expected to continue for at least six months, O’Neil said. Meanwhile, federal officials are reviewing additional indoor air data collected from 2007 to the present and plan to complete a second health assessment. That report will include risk calculations for tetrachloroethylene exposure.