By Katy Savage
An attempt to expand the Vermont Farmers Market Food Center on West Street in Rutland has uncovered a contamination problem in the air and soil.
The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources sent current and former owners of the property a letter on Dec. 30 explaining they need to provide a corrective action plan by Jan. 17 under state statute.
Kimberly Caldwell, an environmental analyst at the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, said the owners have been told to stop using the building in the meantime.
“The recommendation of the health department is that the tenants find alternate locations,” Caldwell said. “It’s up to them if they do that, we can’t force them out of the building.”
The Phase II environmental site assessment, prepared by Weston & Sampson Engineers, Inc. on Dec. 29, found high levels of tetrachloroethylene (TCE) in the soil beneath the Farmer’s Hall building and both TCE and chloroform in indoor air samples collected from the Farmer’s Hall building.
TCE is a common ingredient in stain remover, carpet cleaner and other degreasing products.
The Environmental Protection Agency has classified TCE as a carcinogen. Long term exposure in the workplace has been linked to several types of cancer including bladder cancer, non-Hodgkins lymphoma and multiple myeloma. Short term inhalation risks, according to EPA, include upper respiratory tract and eye irritation, kidney dysfunction, and neurological effects such as dizziness, headache, sleepiness and unconsciousness. TCE exposure can also have adverse effects on the liver, immune system and on development and reproduction.
“The potentially responsible parties need to provide a work plan with a consultant that proposes how to test moving forward,” said Caldwell, explaining all current and former owners of the property are liable for the contamination.
The Rutland Regional Planning Commission has paid for the environmental studies on the building so far through the Rutland Region Brownfields Reuse Program.
Rutland Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Ed Bove said the commission has spent about $55,000 so far on the Phase I study and preliminary Phase II study at the site.
The brownfields program is available for both public and private locations. The program has been around for 20 years and has received about $2 million in funding in that time.
“With every site, there’s something that gets turned up,” Bove said.
Bove said the planning commission will likely be able to pay for the entire cleanup process of the Vermont Farmer’s Center property, but the solutions won’t be immediate.
“It will be a year or two to get through everything, depending on how they want to attack it,” Bove said.
It’s unclear what the source of the contamination is. The property was formerly a machine shop for General Electric. According to the environmental study, a former General Electric employee notified the owners that he operated a degreasing machine there that used TCE.
More testing needs to be done to understand how widespread the contamination is.
“I know some of the soil gas points that were tested around the building weren’t showing contamination,” Caldwell said. “It seemed to be localized to the Farmer’s Hall building.”
The owners have a plan to add a distribution area, custom meat-cutting room and a commercial kitchen to the building, which necessitated the environmental study. The $20 million project would improve the farmer’s market property and the long-vacant Lynda Lee dress factory behind it. The Board of Aldermen granted VFFC board president Greg Cox $32,000 to help pay for a feasibility study in October.
“This is a new development that has come quite unexpectedly to the whole community,” said Kathleen Krevetski, a former board member of the Vermont Farmers Market Food Center.
Greg Cox, the president of the Vermont Farmers Market Food Center, said about 60 vendors rely on the market as part of their income. About 500-600 customers attend the market every week.
“They have no other market — this is what they do this time of year,” Cox said.
Cox said there are no plans to shut down because of the contamination.
“We’re not just going to roll over because somebody tells us to,” he said. “We don’t want to create panic.”
Cox said both the vendors and customers have been provided with all relevant information. Some vendors have chosen to leave, while most have stayed.
“The customers can make up their own mind,” Cox said.
The winter market remains open on Saturday mornings with “maximum ventilation” provided before customers arrive. There is also signage on the door, explaining TCE can affect the developing heart of a baby.
“In the conversations we have had with the health department, they determined that consuming food that was prepped or stored in the building was NOT an issue,” according to an announcement on the Vermont Farmers Market website.
The announcement also said the soil and air collections didn’t account for doors opening and closing.
“The results represent a snapshot in time and can change daily to seasonally based on many factors, including temperature, air pressure, and if doors are opened and closed,” the announcement says. “Operation of kitchen exhaust fans can also affect how much soil gas is able to infiltrate through the building slab. Unless samples are collected while the doors are open, there is no way to know how effective those ventilation efforts are at reducing the concentrations.”
Rutland Rec Superintendent Kim Peters said she was contacted about a month ago about moving the farmers market to the rec center, but the location was quickly ruled out because it lacks a kitchen.
“It’s not the best situation, we’re going to make lemonade out of lemons,” Cox said. “The TCE is the worst of it, we’re working to remediate that right now. It’s on the fast track.”
Site investigation results are due to the state in March.
“Work that will address the ongoing exposure to indoor air contamination at the Farmer’s Hall building is the highest priority,” Caldwell said in the letter to the owners.