State Finds No Penta Risk; Consultant, Residents Disagree

The New York State Department of Health has weighed in on whether the wood preservative on the utility poles recently installed by PSEG Long Island along a six-mile route in East Hampton Town, saying it poses no health or environmental safety risk.

Despite the state agency’s finding, however, Long Island Businesses for Responsible Energy, or LIBFRE, a group of residents along the transmission route from East Hampton Village to Amagansett, and other concerned residents, said this week through the organization’s co-chair, Rebecca Singer, that there are “very real concerns associated with the toxic waste sitting in front of our homes, and toxins in the air, soil, and probably water.” Ms. Singer distributed an analysis by Pamela Miller, the executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics, who serves on the steering committee of an international pollutants review board, and a rebuttal of the state’s findings by Peter Dermody, the principal hydrogeologist of Dermody Consulting, which LIBFRE had hired to test soil around the poles.

In a June 6 letter to East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell, Dr. Thomas  B. Johnson of the New York State Bureau of Toxic Substance Assessment cited Environmental Protection Agency findings that the use of pentachlorophenol, or penta, “will not pose unreasonable risks to humans or the environment.” In other letters to James Tomarken, the Suffolk County health commissioner, Dr. Johnson said “people would be unlikely to contact soil near the poles with sufficient duration and frequency to result in a significant risk for adverse health effects.” He said that would even be true “at the highest penta levels cited in the Dermody report.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Dermody responded. He noted that although the E.P.A. allows the use of penta, the agency listed it as a “probable carcinogen.”  He quotes an E.P.A. “hazard summary” that reads, “Pentachlorophenol is extremely toxic to humans from acute (short-term) ingestion and inhalation exposure.” He reiterated his finding that the concentrations of penta detected in the soil around the PSEG-installed poles exceed, by up to 300 times, the state threshold for soil cleanup.

“The conclusion in your letters that these concentrations are well below the levels that could be safely ingested by a child are inconsistent with the E.P.A.’s findings regarding penta’s toxicity, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s studies, and fail to account for the reason that penta was banned in 26 countries, and banned in the United States for all purposes except utility poles,” Mr. Dermody wrote. Mr. Dermody questioned the state agency’s assessment of odors around the poles as “nuisance odors,” with symptoms that dissipate quickly.

He cites the E.P.A.’s  own measures for the minimum concentrations at which the human nose can detect the chemical, (131 milligrams per cubic meter), and the much lower level (2.5 milligrams per cubic meter) at which the Centers for Disease Control’s National Institute for Safety and Health decrees airborne penta levels to be an “immediate danger to life and health” — a designation described by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as pertaining to something that “would cause irreversible adverse health effects.” Dermody Consulting, Mr. Dermody says, “noted strong odors emanating from the poles three to four months after they were installed. Therefore, the residents’ exposure to penta is ongoing.” Dogs who have stepped on soil adjacent to the poles, or have gotten penta from the poles on their fur, could then transfer it to humans.

Seepage of the chemical into the water table, or direct contact of the poles with the groundwater, is also a concern, Mr. Dermody said, noting that the poles have been installed in an area where the water table is about seven feet below grade.

Mr. Cantwell said yesterday that he would review the additional information from Mr. Dermody as well as Ms. Miller’s report. However, he said, the town has little standing to challenge a state health department finding, and that changing the agency’s recommendations regarding penta is something the town is “not prepared to take on.”