Community Angry About Pcb Threat

Posted: March 15, 1987

WEST AMWELL, N.J. — Out of habit, Barbara Kiriluk still finds herself turning on the kitchen faucet to fill her coffee pot. Then she catches herself and remembers to use the bottled water instead.

Kiriluk, her husband Bill, and their two children drank water from the private well on their secluded Hunterdon County farm for more than 20 years.

But that was before March 5, when they learned from federal officials that their well was contaminated by PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, which were widely used as lubricants and fire retardants before being banned in 1976 as potentially cancer-causing.

The likely source of the PCBs, say state officials, is the Kiriluks' neighbor up the road, the Texas Eastern Gas Pipeline Co. of Houston. The company has told federal officials that its workers poured PCB-contaminated liquids into earthen pits in 13 states along its natural gas pipeline.

As apparent victims of chemical dumping, the Kiriluks can add their names to a long list of others in New Jersey and throughout the country. But there is a twist to the Kiriluks' tale that has raised questions about the conduct of Texas Eastern and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Both the company and the federal agency had reason to believe in August 1985 that a PCB contamination problem might have existed on Texas Eastern's West Amwell property. But neither the company nor the EPA told state officials or West Amwell residents until the media got wind of the problem a few weeks ago.

In those intervening 18 months, the Kiriluks continued to drink the water

from their well, unaware that it might be unsafe. So did four other area

families whose wells have been found to be contaminated by PCBs. The situation has left them very angry.

"Texas Eastern could have done it unintentionally in the past," Bill Kiriluk said recently, "when people didn't understand about pollution. But once they found out, why did they cover it up? And the government is just as bad. They didn't tell us either."

Others in the rural community of 2,400 share Kiriluk's anger.

"I want to know why Texas Eastern or the EPA didn't notify us," said Jacqueline Nelson, another West Amwell resident with PCBs in her drinking water well. "If the Environmental Protection Agency was supposed to be protecting me, where were they?"

EPA officials say they never expected that the PCBs, which tend to cling to soil, would find their way into drinking water supplies.

"We felt we didn't have the information we needed to confirm that there might be a problem to residents who live nearby," Robin Woods, an EPA representative, said last week.

Neither did Texas Eastern, according to company officials.

"Our feeling was that based on the preliminary sampling we had done, there was not a health hazard to homeowners in the immediate vicinity," said Fred Wichlep, a Texas Eastern vice president.

But those conclusions were called into question two weeks ago when EPA tests, prompted by news reports of the dumping, disclosed that five of nine private wells tested in West Amwell had PCB levels that state officials consider unsafe.

The Kiriluks' well showed a PCB reading of 4.4 parts per billion, nearly six times the maximum level that the state considers safe for drinking water. State and federal officials are awaiting results of tests from 12 other private wells in the area as they try to measure the extent of the groundwater contamination.

Meanwhile, Texas Eastern is providing bottled water to the affected

families and others in the township who are worried about what might be in their well water.

Although the company has not acknowledged responsibility for the contamination, Texas Eastern's West Amwell property is one of 68 sites in 13 states, including Pennsylvania, where PCB-contaminated liquids were poured into open pits beginning sometime after 1958, according to company officials.

The practice ceased in West Amwell in 1967, but state officials say that Texas Eastern representatives have told them that as many as 200 to 300 gallons of PCB-contaminated liquids could have been dumped each week into an earthen pit at the company's pipeline compressor station.

So far, the West Amwell wells are the only wells in the country that were tested in conjunction with the Texas Eastern dumping and registered positive for PCBs. State officials say the test results suggest that the PCBs traveled through the soil to pollute the underlying groundwater.

Texas Eastern had been using PCBs since 1958 in the compressors that pump natural gas through its 10,000 miles of pipelines. But company officials say that they did not discover until 1981 that the pipeline liquids that they would regularly drain and then pour into open pits were contaminated with PCBs.

In August 1985, the company notified EPA officials that the liquids had been poured into pits across the country. Wichlep, the Texas Eastern vice president, said he could not explain last week why the company had waited until 1985 to notify the federal agency about past disposal practices.

Although Texas Eastern and the EPA have been working since 1985 on a cleanup plan, neither the company nor the agency disclosed the PCB problem publicly or alerted state environmental agencies until it was reported by the news media late last month.

"In hindsight, could we have done it a little quicker? Certainly," said Christopher Daggett, the EPA regional administrator who oversees New Jersey.

But hindsight is no consolation to the Kiriluk family and others in West Amwell who now wonder how long their wells have been contaminated, and what drinking PCB-laden water could mean for their health down the road.

"The fact that they knew about it and didn't tell anybody else makes you feel let down, deceived, angry," said Barbara Kiriluk.

"The worst thing to me is that I might have been raised on it," added her 22-year-old son, Mark. "I guess I could be a living guinea pig."

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