It's been five years since a site of a toxic chemical spill in Le Roy -- known as the Lehigh Train Derailment Site -- made the news as part of a media frenzy around reports of students at the high school developing strange, unexplained tics, but cleanup work has been ongoing since, according to a spokesman for the EPA.
In fact, good progress has been made and the end may be in sight for remediation, according to Michael Basile, who represents the Environmental Protection Agency in Buffalo.
There's no firm timeline for completion of the work, but there have been two significant recent developments, he said.
First, last year some 300 pounds of trichloroethene (TCE) contaminated soil was removed from the area, he said. That removal effort is ongoing and will continue until testing shows TCE has been removed from the area. (CORRECTION: This should have read 300 pounds of TCE removed from the soil).
Second, a draft document on remediation options for contaminated groundwater has been completed and the EPA will pick a plan from those options for remediation sometime this year.
The TCE spill was the result of a train crash at the site on Gulf Road in the early morning hours of Dec. 6, 1970. Approximately 2,000 pounds of cyanide crystals and 30,000 to 35,000 gallons of TCE were spilled. The cyanide was removed, but at the time Lehigh apparently didn't have an easy way to remove the TCE. Instead, it tried saturating the area with one million gallons of water. This only drove the TCE deeper into the ground and contaminated about 50 water wells.
The site became a footnote in local history until 2012 when a group of mostly girls at Le Roy High School were reported to have developed odd tics and uncontrolled movements. As families and members of the community searched for answers, the spill site became a target for investigation.
Famed environmental crusader Erin Brockovich was contacted, and though she never personally came to Le Roy, she sent out a team of scientists led by Robert Bowcock.
The entire event had reached a fevered pitch in the national media by that point, with news crews from nearly ever major news outlet in the country arriving in Le Roy, as well as crews from as far away as Japan.
A trip to the site on the day Bowcock arrived in town revealed a cleanup area that appeared to be largely neglected. More than 300 rusted barrels of material were being stored there, further feeding concerns about the state of contamination.
However, Bowcock's own tests and his examination the topography of the region, led the Los Angeles-based environmental scientist to conclude that contamination from the site did not and could not reach the location of the high school and there was no known connection for all those suffering from the tics to the railroad property contamination.
The ongoing concern about its status, however, brought about a visit to the site by Congresswoman Kathy Hochul. Sen. Charles Schumer also got involved.
The EPA soon closed the location to media access and brought in crews to remove the barrels, which the EPA said were filled with rock, sand and dirt and did not likely contain contaminated soil. Later testing, the EPA announced at the time, detected a trace amount of TCE in some barrels.
In the five years since the events, there have been no new reports of strange tics among young people in Le Roy and there have been reports that the dozen or so people originally treated at the Dent Neurological Institute are all improved, confirming the earlier diagnoses of a mass psychogenic illness.
The EPA continues to monitor the site closely, Basile said. This includes maintaining soil vapor monitors in homes near where the spill occurred. Next month, he said, it will be time for inspectors to visit those monitors and change their filters. That monitoring is expected to continue indefinitely.
Photo: File photo from 2012.