Big Bad Neighbor

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Beginning about six years ago, whenever Jean Kenny's two young grandchildren were bathed in her tub, they got severe rashes. ``At first, we didn't suspect the water,'' Kenny says. ``Babies are always getting rashes.''

Nancy, the mother of the oldest child, was the first to make the connection: ``Mom, this only happens when they come to your house!'' By this time the children were toddlers, old enough to sit up in the tub, and the rashes corresponded to where the water level reached on their bodies.

Last October we were seated at the kitchen table in Kenny's home, a white vinyl-sided colonial just off Separatist Road, which rims the southwestern edge of the University of Connecticut's Storrs campus. Outside, hanging vertically on the front door, was an American flag; Kenny also wore a small flag pin made from glass beads, in honor of the victims of September 11.

Jean Kenny is an affable woman of 63 -- Irish Catholic, with blond hair streaked with gray, an open lively face, and a readiness to laugh that she admits is a way of coping with stress. I'm catching her at her lunch break, between clients. Kenny has a busy schedule: She's a licensed clinical social worker employed full time by the town of Mansfield to counsel elderly clients at the senior center; she also sees private clients at night and gets occasional calls for crisis intervention.

The round oak kitchen table is crowded with stuff, including photographs of her five children and the two grandchildren: 7 1/2-year-old Evan, and 7-year-old Emily, who is dressed proudly in a shiny purple outfit she wears for tap dancing. Among the projects littering the table is a string of paper ghosts that Kenny has been cutting out for their planned visit for Halloween. Traditionally the families converge here at Storrs on holidays -- coming from two directions: Brewster, New York, and Lexington, Massachusetts. The weekend visits -- once frequent, since their mothers wanted the cousins to be close -- are rarer now, because of the water.

Tests of Kenny's well show the presence of trichloroethylene, sometimes known as trichloroethene, or TCE, an industrial degreasing solvent -- the same contaminant that turned up in the public drinking water of Woburn, Mass., where an unusual increase in childhood leukemia prompted the lawsuit portrayed in ``A Civil Action.'' TCE is a known carcinogen, and can cause neurological impairment and rashes. Kenny's water shows traces of heavy metals and other chemicals, as well. But it still falls within officially acceptable standards of potability. Town and state officials have assured Kenny it's safe.

She laughs. ``But what do those standards mean? They're based on bell curves. They don't take into account long-term use, or the effect on young children, or the sensitivity of individuals. My grandchildren are fair-skinned, like me. The first time we bathed Evan in the tub, when he was a year old, we thought he had come down with measles, he was so broken out. He even had a fever.''

Although she can't prove it, Kenny has no doubt that the source of contamination in her well is ``the dump,'' located next to wetlands at the northwestern corner of the UConn campus, along Hunting Lodge Road, just north of North Eagleville Road. It is a little more than half a mile from Kenny's house. The university denies a connection.

By ``dump,'' Kenny is referring to both the university's 15-acre solid waste landfill, which operated from 1966 through 1989, and the adjacent chemical pits, where hundreds of gallons of highly toxic laboratory wastes and other chemicals were deposited. Chemicals included volatile organic compounds such as TCE and toluene, benzene, various pesticides, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, chromium and other heavy metals, as well as cesium and possibly other low-level radioactive wastes. An inventory of such chemicals was compiled by geology students in 1980 on the basis of interviews with UConn personnel; university engineering consultants verified their findings in subsequent studies that are now part of the public record.

The landfill itself received a variety of toxic materials, as well, including sewage sludge and filter sands contaminated with heavy metals and chemical residues. Men I interviewed who are now in their thirties and early forties recall playing as boys in an old helicopter body, and watching while stacks of surplus computers were buried or drums of ``yellow goop'' were squashed under bulldozer treads.

After both the landfill and the chemical pits were found to be leaching contaminants into the surrounding wetlands, threatening the ``waters of the state,'' the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection in 1982 issued a consent order that required UConn to stop using the site. The university was also ordered to hire outside consulting engineers to assess the amount of contamination and to take steps to mitigate it.

Pursuant to the order, UConn hired consultants and removed thousands of cubic yards of contaminated soil, enough to cover a football field a yard deep, from the area of the chemical pits. Test wells were drilled. The contamination was found to have spread into the groundwater. Several nearby household wells were tested and found to be contaminated or at obvious risk. The engineering report released in 1985 pointed to the dump as the possible source of contamination, and to the likelihood of a ``hydraulic connection'' between the dump and the wells, but noted that a more sophisticated study would be needed to prove it one way or the other.

The DEP could have required UConn to commission the more sophisticated study or to map the plume of leachate, or both. Instead, it permitted the university to extend its water lines to some 20 nearby residences and apartment complexes without admitting liability. UConn was also permitted to charge its new customers for water and to demand, as a condition of the hookup, the right to purchase the property, should it be sold. Other household wells, even a stone's throw away, were declared safe. The plume was never mapped, the landfill never capped, and the 1982 consent order was allowed to expire.

Not until 1998 -- 16 years after the original consent order -- when a local pharmacist named Greg Cichowski called attention to what he suspected was a ``cancer cluster'' based on prescriptions he was filling in the neighborhood west of the chemical pits, did the dump again appear in the news. He tried to get the state health department to cooperate in a formal study but was turned down. Concerned about the uncapped landfill and believing that the DEP and the university were dragging their feet, Cichowski and two local environmental groups appealed to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA told them that while the site probably qualified for Superfund status, they should work with the state DEP to avoid years of delay. The result was a new, 1998 consent order that required UConn to cap the landfill, map the plume and to supply water to any citizens whose wells the DEP found to be contaminated by the university's chemical wastes.

Meanwhile, the town of Mansfield, in response to the public outcry in 1998, finally undertook a systematic screening of wells, under the direction of Rob Miller, the town sanitarian and director of the regional health district.

Twenty-four wells were found to be contaminated -- more than a quarter of the wells tested -- but at levels too low to pose a threat to health, state health department epidemiologist Jennifer Kertanis reported in a February 2000 memo to Miller.

However, a year later the dump was clearly implicated. ``I have determined that five drinking water wells serving six properties have been polluted or can reasonably be expected to be polluted by volatile organic compounds attributable to the chemical pits,'' DEP Commissioner Arthur Rocque notified UConn Provost and Chancellor John Petersen in a February 22, 2001, letter. He ordered the university to extend its water lines to those properties.

The November before, Rocque had warned Petersen in writing that the university, ``as the responsible party,'' should gauge the risk to other wells. He directed Petersen's attention to residences located farther to the southwest, on North Eagleville Road and Meadowood Road.

The university complied promptly. Scott Brohinsky, head of the university public relations department, assured me that to date the university has hooked up 34 homes whose wells have been shown to be contaminated. ``And quickly,'' university spokeswoman Karen Grava added. However, the university's position is that the DEP must make the determination.

Whether the plume, which geologists believe is migrating southwest, has reached as far as Jean Kenny's neighborhood has not been determined. Her house lies a short distance south of a string of properties on Hunting Lodge Road -- including former university president Harry Hartley's house -- that had been initially added to the university's water system under the earlier consent order. But as a consequence of the 16-year delay, no one knows how far or how quickly some of the more mobile chemicals within the plume may have traveled. The aquifer includes what local geologist Larry Frankel refers to as an ancient underground riverbed that runs from the vicinity of the dump.

Kenny has asked to be hooked up to the university water system. But officially her water is considered potable, and, like other homeowners whose wells the DEP has not specifically identified as contaminated, she has been turned down.

Uncertainty continues to shape the water problems that Kenny and her neighbors face now -- issues of supply that extend well beyond her kitchen tap, and which the university and the town have only begun to acknowledge.

Kenny worries about the value of her house. She's divorced, lives alone. ``This house is all I've got. It's my retirement.'' Recently the town reduced the assessments on several houses around the corner from her, on Separatist Road, by 10 percent to reflect the negative impact of the university's newly constructed dorms.

She also worries about her grandchildren, both of whom she says have neurological and developmental problems. They drank the water as infants, in formula and apple juice.

She misses the frequent visits.

One wall of Kenny's dining room is filled with more photographs of children, grandchildren, brothers and sisters. She herself was the middle of five children. She points to a large photo of her mother and father from their 50th wedding anniversary, seated, surrounded by family standing like pillars. Proud. I sense the divorce must have been hard for her. In her living room is the old Singer sewing machine that her grandmother used; an afghan that she later learned became a superhero's cape whenever she left the house. It is a house crowded with invisible family.

Jean Kenny's struggle is not as lonely as it once was. In the past few years she has been joined by others who are concerned not only about their own wells, but whether the entire region will have enough water.

My own awareness was raised in the summer of 2000, when the basements of the churches on North Eagleville Road, at the north end of the UConn campus, started getting flooded -- my own Quaker meeting house among them. Meanwhile, at the southwestern edge of the campus, residents near Separatist Road had been reporting that the brook that runs through their neighborhood was overflowing -- ever since the university had enlarged the ice skating rink and parking lots on top of the hill opposite them.

(This by way of disclosure: I am a longtime resident of Mansfield; I am married to Joan Joffe Hall, a retired professor of English, and have written from time to time about the university. Our lives, like those of most Mansfield residents, are tied up in various ways with the institution -- for the most part beloved -- that dominates this rural eastern Connecticut town.)

The flooding of the church basements followed the university's recent construction of a huge new central warehouse and other buildings and parking lots at the edge of the undeveloped North Campus. The suddenly large volume of storm water rushing down the hill had overflowed culverts and flooded the intersection of North Eagleville and Hunting Lodge roads, as water drained from acres of new asphalt and other nonporous surfaces.

I witnessed the same conditions as recently as last August, while walking around several of the university's construction sites during a rainstorm. Some 17 projects were under way at that time. Temporary provisions such as silt fences for erosion and sedimentation control were not in place, and muddy water was flowing freely into Swan Lake by the new chemistry building and into various brooks.

The first flooding at North Eagleville and Hunting Lodge occurred in June 2000. Mansfield town officials explained in all seriousness that the storm might have been a ``100-year flood.'' On August 14, Mansfield Town Manager Martin Berliner wrote a letter to the town council to that effect. By then a second flood had taken place. After the third ``100-year flood'' in a year, I began to pay more attention to the mounting chorus of complaints from Separatist Road.

At an informal meeting at the Mansfield Town Hall in the spring of 2001, I listened to four residents from that neighborhood -- Wilma Schweppe, Helen Koehn, Frauke Steahr and Lamia Khairallah -- complain to town authorities about the impact of the university's new dorms, known as Hilltop Apartments. The women raised questions about noise and traffic and lighting. But most of their concerns centered on water -- the runoff of storm water, the safety of their wells and in particular a hastily constructed detention basin that was now a muddy pond. Khairallah asked why oil/water separators had been removed from the original plan. Koehn observed that the stagnant water was likely to breed mosquitoes. Would the basin be fenced? Schweppe, who lived right across the street from the detention basin, complained that her well had been contaminated. What could the town do to hold the university accountable? Would wells be regularly tested?

The three town officials said Mansfield could do nothing. It had no oversight of the university. Town Manager Berliner seemed defensive to the point of dismissive, advising the women to take their concerns to their state representatives. ``There's nothing the town can do,'' Berliner told them. Town Planner Greg Padick said all he could do was raise their questions with the university -- in the form of a letter to University Architect Larry Schilling, who had charge of such projects.

The frustration on both sides was almost palpable. The officials seemed helpless; the women did not feel heard.

According to state law, Mansfield has no jurisdiction over its largest landowner. UConn, a state agency occupying state-owned land, answers to neither the local planning and zoning board nor to town inspectors. Any UConn code violations are beyond the purview of the town engineer or the building inspector; they fall under the authority of the state building inspector. But since the massive 10-year billion-dollar capital improvement project known as UConn2000 was launched nearly seven years ago, oversight by state agencies has been stretched thin.

If UConn administrators were in the habit of doing what they wanted, town officials were in the habit of being ignored. Mansfield had always been a company town, dominated by a university instead of a factory. But at this point it had come to resemble a town occupied by a conquering army.

Wilma Schweppe spent much of the session fuming silently. Schweppe, who works in the university accounting office, had the most to lose by speaking out. The university has denied polluting her well, but Schweppe's water tests showed a sharp increase in bacteria after the construction. As the construction progressed, the more she felt her anger grow. In the coming months, her voice would turn out to be one of the most formidable.

Water is not the only problem at UConn. But it is symptomatic of broader issues of environmental stewardship that have long plagued the school, and also of a growing conflict between UConn's corporate thinking and the public trust.

All this has special bearing on Governor John G. Rowland's proposed $1.3 billion extension to UConn's capital building program, known as ``21st Century UConn'' -- and what the new infusion of cash could end up actually costing the people of Connecticut.

It could be plenty.

Apart from the issue of water, UConn2000 comes across as a stunning success. The once down-at-the-heels Storrs campus has been transformed.

Connecticut's premier public institution of higher education had always languished for support from the legislature. It had never quite outgrown its origins as an agricultural school, and stood in the shadow of Yale and other private schools. But under the ambitious capital improvement campaign launched in 1995, its dowdy old campus has been refurbished, new pedestrian walkways created. The venerable Wilbur Cross Library, with its trademark gold dome, has been gutted and revamped inside to resemble a shopping mall -- at a cost of $14 million. Massive new buildings herald the university's determination to enter the top ranks of American research universities: a $56 million state-of-the-art chemistry building; a $21 million business school edifice (scaled so that the neighboring Gampel Pavilion appears half its former size); a $15 million agricultural biotechnology laboratory. All are designed to impress, with high-vaulted atrium lobbies that dwarf the visitor. Crowded old dorms have been replaced by luxuriant new ones.

All this has happened with dazzling speed. Most of these projects have sprung up in the past two years. The pace is exhilarating. It is the bricks-and-mortar equivalent of a winning basketball season for the Huskies. And, in fact, former President Hartley says that UConn2000 -- passed by overwhelming margins in both the House and the Senate, and endorsed by Governor Rowland -- never would have achieved such support without the Huskymania that surged when both the women's and men's basketball teams swept the Big East tournament and the women became NCAA champs. The goal, in a state traditionally tight-fisted toward education, was to turn UConn into a ``world class university.''

And it has succeeded. As President Philip Austin reminded me in an interview, Connecticut's ``brain drain'' has been reversed, as promised; scholarships have increased, as have endowed chairs and retention of minority students. The average SAT score of incoming freshmen has climbed 30 points since UConn2000 was launched. U.S. News & World Report ranks UConn the top public university in New England.

The turnaround has taken a remarkably short time.

But speed has a serious downside when it comes to building. One has only to look at the underlying geology to see why.

Mansfield -- including the central area known as Storrs that contains the sprawling 3,500-acre main campus -- is underlain by bedrock ridges, fractured by various geological forces sometimes to the depth of a mile, the fractures opened further by the thousands of tons of ice that moved across the land eons ago and then melted. Within these fractures, the groundwater flows at various levels, in different directions and at different speeds.

Overlying the bedrock is glacial till, deposited by the ice as it melted 12,000 years ago -- sand and gravel and clay -- covered in turn by topsoil and vegetation, which absorb rainwater. All of this -- the fractured bedrock with its overburden of looser stuff, buffered by vegetation and fed by rivers and brooks and wetlands -- comprises the aquifer that supplies household wells.

Like most towns its size, Mansfield, with a population of about 13,000, excluding the campus, depends almost exclusively on wells -- old-fashioned shallow wells, dug 15 or 20 feet into the overburden, or deep wells drilled into the bedrock. Mansfield is not unique in depending on wells. About a million people in Connecticut, roughly a third of the population, rely on wells -- private household wells or public wells that serve whole communities. As long as the aquifer stays healthy, these wells generally deliver good water.

The same is true for reservoirs, whose watersheds -- the land that drains into them -- need to be protected. Ultimately, whether we get our water from wells or municipal reservoirs, whether we drink bottled water or water from our tap, we all depend on aquifers. State Senator Don Williams, a Killingly Democrat who co-chairs the legislature's Environment Committee, says, ``It's all one big well.''

The university supplies water to roughly 23,000 people, counting all its students and staff as well as some private residential and commercial users. But because it is concentrated in a limited area within Mansfield, the university needs a greater volume of water than fractured bedrock can yield. So it uses powerful pumps to draw water from the sand and gravel deposits alongside the two rivers that bracket it: the Willimantic River, a mile and a half to the west, and the Fenton River, a mile to the east. The water is then treated and piped through the campus.

The fact that the university's and the town's wells draw from two different sources contributes to the present conflict. The university's drinking water, taken from the rivers, is less directly affected by contaminants released into its own backyard, but a degraded aquifer directly affects the residents of Mansfield.

This is happening most obviously now on the university's western watershed, including the neighborhood where Jean Kenny and Wilma Schweppe live. But as the university begins to expand in other directions, as well -- to the north, on the undeveloped North Campus and the Depot Campus, to the east and south on the sensitive aquifers that lie to the east of Route 195 -- the possibility of future environmental destruction is multiplied vastly. That is especially so if the legislature passes ``21st Century UConn.''

UConn's past environmental missteps have cost Connecticut taxpayers millions of dollars. Its present mistakes are proving costly also. If it continues on this path, the future price may be higher still.

In 1971 when she moved into the house, Kenny had noticed glittering black particles collecting at the bottom of her toilet tank. She was told they were iron pyrites, a naturally occurring mineral common to that particular bedrock. In 1990 she installed a sediment filter on her cold water line, and for the next few years she changed the filter every spring.

In 1994, about the time her grandchildren were breaking out in rashes, Kenny started getting rashes on the backs of her hands. In 1998, a dermatologist prescribed hydro-cortisone cream and suggested she wear cotton gloves inside rubber gloves when doing dishes.

Her first water test was performed Aug. 11, 1998, as part of the town well-screening program. On that date her water was found to contain TCE, as well as elevated amounts of ammonia, chloride, nitrite, sodium and sulfates, and trace amounts of copper, chromium, cadmium and lead. These were among the chemicals associated with the plume from the chemical pits, but by no means the full ``signature'' of the leachate. And the amounts were well below the state ``action levels'' -- the level at which a particular contaminant is considered dangerous enough to require treatment. The action level for TCE, for instance, is 5 units of gas per liter of water -- at least a hundred times more than the ``less than .05'' concentration showing up in her well.

So why the rashes?

Certainly, as Kenny observes, individuals vary greatly in their sensitivity to chemicals. Many people suffer allergic reactions to contaminants that do not approach action levels. Five minutes in a carpet display room and their eyes are burning. They fall outside the statistical norms.

Science changes, also. Greg Cichowski, who remains concerned about Mansfield's cancer cases and outspokenly critical of the state Department of Public Health, points out that when the anthrax scare began last October, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta assured the American public that something on the order of 100,000 spores might be necessary to infect an individual with inhalation anthrax. ``Then they changed it to 10,000. Then, for some individuals -- would you believe? -- a few dozen.''

Even when scientific knowledge changes, there is always a lag before it is implemented in public policy. Research in the past two decades has lowered the acceptable standards for mercury and lead. It turns out that, for young children, almost any amount of mercury or lead is bad. New arsenic standards do not go into effect for another seven years. Often science takes a back seat to political and economic realities, including the lobbying efforts of industry, the cost of remediation and the perceived need to calm public fears.

Connecticut's action levels for drinking water are generally based on federal standards, determined by the Environmental Protection Agency. But what Jean Kenny did not know -- and neither do most people who ask for help in interpreting water tests -- is that the EPA puts out two sets of standards.

The EPA's Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) refers to the highest level of a contaminant that is legally permissible. It is derived from experiments with laboratory animals and observed effects on humans, using statistical norms and a cost-benefit analysis that weighs health risks against the cost of providing pure water. Usually, the aim is not to exceed statistically one death per million.

Most people whose water falls within this limit assume it's safe.

What they don't know is that the EPA also publishes a more conservative set of standards known as the Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG). This is the level of exposure below which there is no known or expected risk to health, even to people who fall outside the statistical norms.

So when William G. Warzecha, a supervising environmental analyst for the DEP, assured Kenny in a letter dated April 29, 1999, that her water was ``potable with regard to the constituents tested,'' he was making a judgment based on the legally enforceable MCL, not the more stringent MCLG. Town health officer Rob Miller similarly assured Kenny that her water was safe. What Kenny didn't know and I didn't learn until later is that the more conservative standard in the case of TCE happens to be zero.

Dr. Gerald Iwan, who heads the Water Supplies Section of the state health department's Division of Environmental Health, defines the MCL as ``a formally recognized, enforceable number, below which the law does not recognize a public health harm.'' The more cautious MCLG numbers are goals, he emphasizes, reflecting ``new knowledge, increasing knowledge as to potential harm of a compound.'' They are, to use his word, ``Utopian.''

``Suppose someone believes they are suffering health effects from water that is legally potable,'' I said. ``What remedy is available?''

``They can install carbon filters. They can buy bottled water, which most people have been doing anyway.''

``Doesn't that discriminate against poor people?'' I asked.

``I don't believe so. The law is telling you what the society tells you is safe. You can choose to believe that or not.''

Despite increased concerns about water, hazardous spills from commercial and industrial sources reported to the DEP have skyrocketed in Connecticut in recent years -- from 246,000 gallons in 1997 to 2.5 million gallons in 1999, the most recent year for which figures are available -- a tenfold increase in three years.

During the same period, the number of DEP inspections conducted by its Water Management Bureau dropped by roughly a third; cases referred to the EPA dropped from eight to zero.

In 1999, according to the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, the state's legal environmental defense fund, some 312,000 Connecticut residents -- roughly one out of every 10 of us -- were using water from private and community wells tainted above the action level, so that it had to be treated.

Pure water in Connecticut is becoming rarer.

Jean Kenny took little solace from the assurances of health officials in 1998, but she no longer felt so alone. The well screening tests showed that other wells were contaminated. ``It sounds funny,'' Kenny told me, ``but it felt good just to know that other people had problems. The university and the town had always treated me as though my problems didn't matter, that I was the only one with a problem ... . They're very good at isolating you.''

What Kenny had no way of knowing was that at about the same time her grandchildren were breaking out in rashes, another resident in her neighborhood -- the Lynwood/Hillyndale subdivision, which includes 124 homes -- was developing wart-like growths on his hands. A dermatologist removed the growths, but they kept recurring. Later, when the well water was tested under the 1998 screening program, it was found to contain MTBE, a gasoline additive, and dichlorobenzene, another industrial chemical. When additional filters were installed on the kitchen and bathroom sinks, the growths stopped.

For Kenny and other homeowners uneasy about the plume, the DEP's 1998 consent order to fix the landfill brought little comfort. In the fall of that year Mansfield formally asked UConn President Philip Austin to extend the university's water lines to other homes threatened by contamination. That December, Austin turned down the request.

Chancellor Mark Emmert, writing for Austin at the time, said that without ``substantiating evidence'' that contamination of private wells was caused by the landfill or waste pits, the request ``appears to lack a sound rationale for determining to whom, where and on what basis to extend water.''

The response was full of irony to anyone who knew the history. Emmert was about to leave for Louisiana State University after a brief stay at UConn, and Austin had arrived two years earlier from Alabama. As recent arrivals they could distance themselves from the mistakes of the past, including the failure of the university and the DEP to look for a connection between the dump and the contaminated wells. They could even blame the 16-year delay on their predecessors. But they should have been aware, as they were turning down the town's request, that UConn was heading toward another water crisis -- an actual shortage in supply.

The first warning had come four years earlier, when Lori J. Mathieu, an analyst for the Water Supplies Section of the Department of Public Health, cautioned UConn that it had almost no margin of safety at times of peak demand. ``It is imperative,'' she wrote in a 1994 memo, ``that the UConn system obtain additional water supply before any planned increase in demand.''

The last thing UConn's administrators needed was to hook up new residential customers.

What perhaps no one could have understood is that UConn's past was about to catch up with its future.

Jim and Wilma Schweppe live just around the corner from Jean Kenny, on Separatist Road, in a charming 1940s stone cottage next to the same brook that flows past Kenny's house and through the Lynwood/Hillyndale subdivision. The brook originates on the hill from a wetlands area, filled decades ago for the playing fields and skating rink. Despite the loss of wetlands, the aquifer remained sufficiently healthy to supply the Schweppes' dug well, since the hillside was blanketed with 35 acres of hardwood forest.

In August 1999, the university announced its plans to build, high on the hill, a privatized luxury dorm to be known as Hilltop Apartments. Administrators had gotten approval for the project from the board of trustees, on the strength of a letter written by Dale Dreyfuss, vice chancellor for business and administration. Dreyfuss's letter promised no significant environmental impact from the project.

From September into December, the university held five informal ``town meetings,'' in which University Architect Larry Schilling, who works under Dreyfuss and oversees all capital construction, and Tom Callahan, whose title is special assistant to the president, repeatedly assured residents that a 100-foot buffer of trees would be retained from the original forest. The private developer, Capstone Development Inc., gave similar assurances.

Sometime before 5 on the morning of Aug. 8, 2000, the Schweppes were awakened by the snarl of bulldozers and the crashing of trees in the semidarkness. The entire forest was being clear-cut. ``It was like a bomb had dropped,'' Wilma Schweppe says.

The reason given for the clear-cutting was a last-minute design change: An engineering study had determined that a detention basin roughly half the size of a football field would be necessary to handle storm water runoff. The detention basin would have to go where the treed buffer was to have been. It was to be a ``dry'' detention basin, planted with grass. A row of evergreens was quickly planted on the 7-foot-high earthen berm that separated the detention basin from Separatist Road.

But when the bulldozers dug into the hillside they hit springs. The ``dry'' detention basin became a huge muddy pond. Helen Koehn, who lives next door to the Schweppes, called it ``an eyesore and a health hazard.'' Wilma Schweppe came home from work to find men working with heavy equipment on their property without permission. Furious, she ordered them off. A subsequent test of water from their dug well showed the presence of napthalene, a volatile organic compound associated with the breakdown of hydraulic fluid, as well as coliform and e-coli bacteria.

The design of the detention basin was carried out in haste. Larry Schilling acknowledges that no mapping of the groundwater was undertaken beforehand. Nor were geologists consulted. Core samples were shallow. These are significant omissions, in light of a town consultant's observation that the whole slope forms an important part of the aquifer supplying wells on Separatist Road and in the Lynwood/Hillyndale subdivision. A decade earlier, the site had been rejected by the state for a proposed fraternity complex because of ``possible effects on surface water flow to the abutting private neighborhoods.''

To understand how the present environmental debacle could have taken place, it is helpful to understand the mechanisms driving the university's massive capital improvement campaign, now in its seventh fiscal year.

UConn2000 conferred extraordinary power on the university to shape its own destiny. The school was given the freedom to design and build its own buildings, rather than going through a cumbersome process involving the State Department of Public Works. UConn was also given the authority to issue, over a 10-year period, nearly a billion dollars worth of general obligation bonds, whose interest would be paid by Connecticut taxpayers, as well as special obligation bonds, to be paid off by the revenues generated from such projects as dorms and parking lots, and by student fees. This flexible bonding capability would facilitate partnerships with private corporations. In addition, a matching gift program set up under the University of Connecticut Foundation Inc. would serve as a powerful incentive for corporate giving.

It was, and remains, a heady mixture. UConn never had this kind of money, nor the unfettered freedom to build.

To speed things up further, UConn was given special status for getting past environmental approvals. It was exempted not only from all local control, but from certain state requirements, as well.

Like other state agencies, UConn is still required to comply with the Connecticut Environmental Policy Act -- the cornerstone of environmental law in the state. This means submitting an Environmental Impact Evaluation, or EIE, if a project is expected to significantly affect the environment. This is intended to disclose such impacts as increased traffic, noise, air pollution, storm runoff, damage to wildlife habitat or historical structures, and to provide opportunity for public comment. Patterned after the National Environmental Policy Act, CEPA is intended to force a pause in the process, so that consequences can be weighed, alternatives considered and impacts mitigated. By fostering a more orderly process, it can often save money in the long run, as well as protect the environment.

But the process was especially compressed for UConn. While businesses sometimes wait months for approvals, the university has to wait only 10 business days for an approval or rejection of an application before a state agency such as the DEP. If the agency fails to render a decision before the clock runs out, the application is considered accepted.

UConn administrators I talked to -- from Scott Brohinsky, director of governmental relations, who helped shape the powerful UConn2000 package, to Phil Austin, who was hired as president once it was in place -- insist they have never invoked the 10-day default provision. Brohinsky, a lawyer by training who now oversees the university's aggressive public relations office, was adamant. ``We've gone the standard process every time. Yeah, that authority exists ... It allows an expedited process, and we've never ever utilized it.''

President Austin downplays any special UConn advantage. ``To my knowledge, we have no extraordinary abilities with respect to the environmentals.''

But Arthur Rocque, commissioner of the DEP, expressed a different view. UConn is ``supposed to go through the CEPA,'' Rocque told me, but ``I think with the assistance of the General Assembly, unfortunately, they have been exempted from some of those requirements ... ''

Because the school's projects had been so encumbered by the approvals process in the past, the implicit intent of UConn2000 legislation was to slam-dunk UConn projects through the approval hoops. State commissioners like Rocque are already given broad discretionary powers and shielded from lawsuits that might arise from hasty decisions.

Moreover, if UConn could get the Office of Policy and Management to accept a preliminary study known as a FONSI -- a Finding of No Significant Impact -- then the more rigorous Environmental Impact Evaluation could be avoided entirely. A FONSI allows the process to go even faster, with less opportunity for public review. The hoops virtually disappear.

Which is what led to the unfortunate events at Separatist Road.

Following the clear-cutting of the forest, Karen Grava, media communications director for UConn, told reporters that residents had misunderstood: The treed buffer was not to have been ``retained'' from the existing forest; the plan all along was to plant new trees after the detention basin was constructed. Town authorities, after some initial confusion, supported the university's stance. Town Planner Greg Padick told the Willimantic Chronicle that the clear-cutting appeared to be ``in compliance'' with the university's original plans for the complex.

However, copies of the site plan, which the university circulated among residents beforehand, clearly indicate that the buffer was to have been retained from the original forest. Tape recordings from the public meetings are filled with similar reassurances.

Schilling denied they had hit springs, despite clear evidence to the contrary. One spring was visibly producing red water, the other black water -- suggesting sources rich in iron and manganese. DEP engineer Art Christian acknowledged in a memo that the springs had been struck. Wilma Schweppe observes that ``anybody who lives around here knew that hill was full of springs. Every year there were accidents from the groundwater freezing on the road. Nobody could stop it.''

To make matters worse, corners were cut during construction. A promised silt-separator was dropped from the plan for cost reasons, with the DEP's blessing, and deep-sump storm sewers with oil/gas separators were not installed in the parking lots where the FONSI called for them. Silt fences gave way, releasing an avalanche of mud into the already flooded brook. Jean Kenny recorded the torrent of muddy water with a video camera.

Expediency had ruled the Hilltop project from the beginning. When private financing had fallen through, UConn hurriedly issued its own special obligation revenue bonds, and now owns the buildings outright. The massive $42 million, 935-bed complex went up in only eight months and was plagued with labor violations.

Ruth McLaughlin, who lives on Separatist Road, mobilized her neighbors. She and her husband, Charles, a retired English professor, wrote letters to the Chronicle, circulated petitions and held strategy sessions that Helen Koehn, the Schweppes and others began to attend.

The loosely organized group had no obvious forum. Because Mansfield lacks any jurisdiction over UConn, they had no recourse to zoning meetings or other obvious platforms. In September of 2000, Helen Koehn wrote a letter to Betsy -- mayor of Mansfield, who was also interim director of the bursar's office at UConn -- asking for expert advice and support from the town. Paterson did not reply.

Ten months later, Paterson, who had been promoted to bursar, stood up at a Democratic town caucus and took critics to task, asserting that ``relations between the university and the town have never been better.''

Later, when I asked her what she meant, Paterson said her chief goal as mayor was to improve communications between the town and the university, and this was happening -- even if points of disagreement such as the landfill issue remained. ``We are at least learning about things before reading about them in the paper.''

Ruth McLaughlin says that Paterson, in her dual role as mayor and bursar, ``inevitably has a conflict of interest.''

Paterson denies a conflict. She accuses critics of being ``anti-university'' and observes that several past mayors have been employed by the university. ``I don't always like what the university does, but they're in our town; they're a large entity, and they're not going to go away, so we need to find a way to work with them.''

The Separatist Road group began showing up wherever they could make their voices heard: at public informational gatherings on other subjects sponsored by the university and the town; meetings of the Council on Environmental Quality, a statewide council that advises the governor and issues an annual report; meetings of the UConn Board of Trustees.

Helen Koehn and her husband Uwe still have the site plan on which Tom Callahan drew a line with a black felt marker indicating where the treed buffer would be. Callahan had come to their home to reassure them, several months before the clear-cutting. On the strength of his assurances, they went ahead and built a $320,000 house on Separatist Road. ``I think he knew the plans had changed, at that point,'' Koehn says. ``He just wanted to shut me up.''

But the women would not shut up. Koehn, a soft-spoken former research librarian, began foraging through documents at town hall and in repositories in Hartford; she cruised the Internet, corresponded with environmental groups. She and Ruth McLaughlin focused their efforts on Mansfield's town government. They wanted the town to protect their interests, to stand up to the university and do whatever could be done to put things right.

``We just kept at it,'' Koehn says. ``We kept saying we're not engineers, and we can't come up with alternatives -- but there has to be some other way.'' Finally, last September the town agreed to hire an independent engineering consultant and a hydrogeologist to investigate the situation.

The half-dozen or so women were becoming a force to be reckoned with. Another group, calling itself Citizens for Responsible Growth, expanded the battle to other neighborhoods in the path of UConn's development. Nobody wanted to see another Separatist Road.

In the meantime, the detention basin went from bad to worse:

Schilling decided to plug the outlet, in an effort to keep the silt from running into the brook. The basin remained full of muddy water all last summer. In July, Frauke Steahr noticed an oily sheen on the water. With a rope tied around her waist, the other end held by her friend Richard Dziadus, Steahr crept down the side of the berm several feet and captured a sample of the fouled water in a fruit jar. Dziadus, who happens to be a member of the Ashford Inland Wetlands Commission, telephoned the DEP's Emergency Spill Response number and reported the spill, which was determined to be diesel fuel from the construction site. The jar of foul-smelling water was later presented to UConn by the environmental activist group, Toxics Action Center, as part of a ``Dirty Dozen'' award to UConn for its detention basin.

Finally, in November, because the berm was functioning as a dam, DEP engineers declared it such -- which meant that the university would have to remove the row of evergreens -- the last vestige of the promised buffer -- and obtain a dam permit before it could proceed with any corrective measures. So it went -- a series of cascading environmental blunders that is still not resolved. To date, the university has spent $115,000, most of it restoring such measures as the silt separators that had been omitted. Even these efforts represent a fraction of what it may eventually cost to correct a situation whose hydrology turns out to be quite complex.

In addition to chemical burdens such as the spilled oil, the brook also receives water from the baseball fields -- which, because they were built on filled wetlands, have a special, $450,000 water-extraction system installed under the turf. Water samples taken from the brook by the state health department last April already showed trace amounts of acetone, tetrahydrofuran and other volatile organics. Sheila Thompson, who lives farther downstream, in the Lynwood/Hillyndale neighborhood, testified at a public meeting in November that frogs had died and that the remaining brook trout appeared mottled and stunted.

Schweppe believes her well was contaminated as a consequence of the university's activities. She says that she and her husband have spent more than $10,000 for water tests, legal fees and bottled water. She too has asked to be hooked up to university water and has been turned down.

Schweppe is a private person, a Huskies fan and a loyal employee. Speaking out against her employer involved a painful choice. ``I've worked so hard for them,'' she told me, ``and I feel so violated.''

In August, at a special session of the Council on Environmental Quality -- held because the complaints about UConn were too numerous to be handled during its last regular session -- Schweppe testified along with Jean Kenny and others; 20 or so people in all, mostly from the area around Separatist Road. Kenny described her grandchildren's rashes, while she played a videotape of the raging brook. Schweppe referred to her own water tests that showed fecal coliform bacteria in her well after the construction. She recommended that wells be monitored more systematically and that the university carry out a study similar to the one now under way for the landfill.

After listening to everybody's testimony, CEQ Chairman Donal O'Brien agreed with them that the FONSI should never have been accepted. He said that in the nearly 20 years he had served on the council, he had ``never heard such an outpouring of citizen concern.''

Senator Edith Prague, who represented the Mansfield area, stood up at the same meeting and called what UConn was doing a ``disgrace. I'm sorry I ever voted for UConn2000.''

They have all been courageous in their own ways, these women who have struggled with the university and the town to make their demands heard.

They present themselves very differently. The contrast is especially vivid between Kenny and Schweppe. Kenny is soft, Schweppe hard. Kenny negotiates the complaints of the elderly; Schweppe declares herself ``not a people person.''

When Kenny speaks from a podium, she is sometimes at the brink of tears. She depends on visual aids.

Schweppe, a decade or so younger, is more strident and more organized. A tall blond woman who grew up in Queens, she dresses smartly, chews gum, has a voice honed to cut through urban racket -- which she put to dramatic use two weeks after the CEQ hearing. She and her husband showed up along with more than a hundred other residents at a university-sponsored meeting held on campus last September, for the purpose of answering their concerns about the detention basin.

Tom Callahan was moderating the session, with Chancellor Petersen and other officials on hand to field questions. After Uwe Koehn charged that Callahan had deceived them, Schweppe leapt to her feet to amplify Koehn's point.

Callahan tried to cut her off -- ``Excuse me --''

But Schweppe pointed a finger straight at him and yelled ``No! I'm speaking!'' She had a DEP document that she said proved that as early as November 1999, the university knew the clear-cutting of trees would be necessary. ``And they continued to meet with us for another year. And no one that went to those meetings knew that those trees were coming down!'' The last was almost a shriek. She sat down to stunned silence.

Later, Petersen observed that he had arrived only in June 2000. ``I'm not going to say I'm not interested in how we got where we're at, and what happened 15 or 20 months ago, before I came,'' but he said he was ``much more interested in how we get from where we are, to where we want to go.''

A woman in the back of the room called out to Petersen, ``Do you believe this woman's water is tainted?''

``I don't know,'' Petersen said. ``I mean, I don't have any reason not to believe her ... ''

``What are you prepared to do to fix it?'' the woman asked cheerfully. ``I mean, the issue is, the water is bad, whatever happened to it, and the trees are down. What can be done to restore the trees? What can be done to clean up the water?''

The questions, put so simply, made too much sense to ignore.

Petersen finally turned to Wilma Schweppe and asked if they could sit down together and agree on a laboratory, so that the university could test her water, as she had been requesting. Schweppe agreed. The crowd applauded.

That was last September. Petersen's secretary called several times to reschedule appointments. Petersen went to South Africa, returned. The weeks turned into months. Petersen's testing lab was having trouble communicating with Schweppe's testing lab.

Six months later, Schweppe is still waiting.

Kenny too is in limbo. The situation took a turn for the worse last summer. Her water had always been high in iron and manganese, which occur naturally in the bedrock. Following construction of the detention basin, her water turned the color of mud. The filter she used to change once a year now sometimes clogged in two or three weeks. She had no way of showering, no way of washing clothes. She was frantic.

She appealed to Rob Miller, who reminded her that her water was potable. But Miller arranged to come to her home on a Tuesday afternoon, October 23, with Tom Callahan and Carole Johnson, a hydrogeologist with the U.S. Geological Service. Kenny's son came to assist with the physical work. The idea was to inspect and measure the well. Miller had assured Kenny the job would take only 20 minutes. It ended up taking two hours. The pipes were pulled out and 10-foot lengths were cut off. Despite their good intentions, the well was left in such turmoil that Kenny's water turned black.

The following day, Kenny brought three jars of water with her when she testified a second time before another special session of the CEQ. The three samples, taken at different times, were all nearly black. The council members were gathered around a long conference table in Windham Town Hall. When Kenny set the jars on the table, CEQ Executive Director Karl Wagener quipped that he thought she was bringing them coffee.

Kenny described the dismantling of her well on Tuesday. She was clearly at her wits' end.

Callahan, in the meantime, was accosted in the hallway by Senator Prague, who minced no words telling him what she thought of the university's treatment of Kenny. As a consequence, he missed Kenny's testimony and the significance of the jars, which remained on the table. When he took the podium to speak, he described all that the university was doing to help Kenny, and reminded the CEQ that her water was after all ``potable.''

All eyes fell on the jars of black water.

Later, at the Mansfield Senior Center, where Kenny was working, Prague showed up to make a presentation. Afterward, she grabbed Kenny's arm and said, ``We're going to the chancellor's office.'' They drove to Gulley Hall, where Petersen had agreed to meet with them. Outside, on the sidewalk, Prague stopped and said to Kenny, ``Now what is it we want? Let's be clear.''

``I told her I wanted to get hooked up to the university's water system,'' Kenney says, and Prague agreed. ``She asked me what I wanted now. She helped me come up with a list. Passes to use the university showers. Bottled drinking water. Reimbursement for using the laundromat.''

Eventually, she got the bottled water and the shower passes.

After a few weeks, her water ``quieted down.'' But following more work on the detention basin, it again turned the color of mud, she says.

Now that work on the detention pond has stopped, Kenny's water is fairly clear. She uses it for washing dishes and can shower. But she doesn't know what to do. Should she pursue legal action? Should she drill a new well, or try to have the old one cleaned? If the problem is caused by the detention basin, the same thing could happen again.

She dreams about the well. ``I wake every morning feeling sick to my stomach. My kids tell me I'm a wreck. Why don't I just sell the house and get out? They don't want to come here anymore. But I just keep telling them I can't do that, you know, I can't just sell the house. My accountant told Callahan, `I'm overseeing her investments, and the lion's share of her financial stability is invested in her house, and with the well ruined, she has no options. She cannot sell it. It has ruined her financially ... '

``I can't believe they can be so unethical, so inhumane. There's no other way to describe it. How can they sleep at night? How can they look me in the face, and act like there's -- you know what I mean? -- like it doesn't matter? I don't understand how people can do that.''

What the Separatist Road disaster illuminates is the extent to which the new course being charted by the state's flagship university muddies the distinction between public and private interests. A whole flotilla of private companies working, even loosely, under UConn2000 is now able to slip past environmental regulators under the same special provisions accorded the mother ship.

UConn itself is behaving more and more like a growth-oriented corporation, driven by profits and by competition for market share. Students are perceived as consumers. Administrators cast themselves in the role of corporate CEOs, on the lookout for public-private partnerships that will net research money for UConn.

Governor Rowland's proposed infusion of $1.3 billion in new cash, if passed by the General Assembly, is likely to intensify this trend. The promise of growth also explains why the governor, facing a $300 million shortfall in tax revenues, wants to extend UConn's capital improvement program, even while squeezing its operating budget to the point of forcing cutbacks in curriculum and support services such as student counseling.

UConn is not the only public university reinventing itself in a business mode. The same process is taking place at many large universities. Whether it serves education is a question that goes beyond the scope of this article. But one thing is clear. If UConn continues to grow in the fashion it has -- with little regard to the geology under it, or the ecosystem surrounding it -- we are headed for a regional water crisis.

The specter of a water shortage looms especially large now, as Connecticut continues to go through a drought that is lowering water tables as well as municipal reservoirs around the state.

Lori J. Mathieu's 1994 memo warning of an impending water shortage was in response to the Environmental Impact Evaluation for the research and technology park being proposed for the undeveloped North Campus. The tech park deal fell through. But the currently proposed development for North Campus would increase UConn's daily demand for water by about the same amount --190,000 gallons -- on top of UConn's present consumption of 1.7 million gallons per day.

UConn's reaction to water shortage concerns was to increase its pumping from the Willimantic River, to relieve pressure on the Fenton. It also repaired leaks in its distribution system and took other steps to conserve water, such as installing water-saving appliances in dorms. Grava says the university has trimmed its daily water consumption per person from 110 gallons in 1989 to 82 gallons at present.

In the meantime, however, various forces -- including the new privately operated dorms, which require 12-month leases to make a profit -- are driving the school toward year-round occupancy, which would add substantially to the demand for water during dry summer months.

In addition, there are a host of other projects -- from development of the ``Depot'' campus on the site of the former Mansfield Training School, to a proposed ``Storrs Downtown'' project being promoted jointly by UConn and town officials, which would include shops and more privatized dorms, and a burgeoning summer schedule that includes bringing the Metropolitan Opera to Storrs for workshops. All of this would increase demand for water well beyond present resources.

Larry Schilling and Tom Callahan insist there is no problem. They say UConn can pump up to 2.3 million gallons per day from its two wellfields. But for all its bulk, UConn's Water Supply Plan -- a voluminous loose-leaf affair nearly as thick as both Hartford phone directories, yellow and white pages combined -- is not persuasive. Callahan refers to it as the ``modified'' Water Supply Plan. Indeed it is an elusive document, in a constant state of revision.

Its projections for future demand assume that the resident student population at Storrs will suddenly stop growing next year, stabilizing at about 10,000 students. That's right: From 2004 until the year 2040, UConn's water planners project zero growth, and they assume the same for Mansfield.

Kurt Heidinger, president of the Naubesatuck Watershed Council, calls the zero growth projection a ``game of pretend.'' And he warns that the university's claimed capacity of 2.3 million gallons per day is purely theoretical, since actual pumpage at that rate would reduce the Fenton to dangerously low levels, as happened in the late 1990s. In the 1960s, residents testify, the Fenton was sucked completely dry.

This worries Heidinger. ``Stratified drift aquifers are very good at purifying water, but they are also fragile. If you were to start sucking the water below the riverbed, you could pull in decayed matter and cryptosporidium, other pathogens. Spilled benzene. Whatever. You can destroy their function.''

Heidinger, a graduate student in English, is among those dismissed by Callahan and Brohinsky as professional agitators and naysayers.

But even DEP Commissioner Rocque, who lives in Mansfield, said that UConn does ``a poor job'' in planning long-range water use, including ``where their water sources are going to come from in the future. There's no question that the university, many many years ago, before anybody knew that these things were bad, had a significant impact on well flows in the Fenton River -- to the point where the Fenton River was nearly dry at low-flow periods, during dry summers.'' Rocque stressed the need for an environmental manager at UConn.

David Fox, a senior environmental analyst for the DEP, wrote a memo last June complaining about the vagueness of the EIE for the North Campus master plan. His earlier request for clarification had gone unanswered, so Fox sounded a little nettled:

``The issue, apparently not sufficiently spelled out in our original comments, is that increased withdrawals from the Fenton basin may cause adverse impacts to the aquatic resources of the river.'' Fox urged UConn to make its calculations based on actual historic pumpage -- not unrealistic grandfathered limits. He also noted that UConn is becoming a year-round campus, and that by 2010 water demand during the summer would be greater than during the regular session.

Fox raised another question -- one that also concerns Heidinger -- the presence of an existing 90-day hazardous waste storage facility located at the foot of Horsebarn Hill. The temporary facility, using a converted coy dog research kennel, replaced the old chemical pits. Why, Fox asked, had it been excluded from the master plan submitted for developing the North Campus?

Frank Labato, who directs the facility, says they have never had a spill. He resents activists' demands that the university conduct soil tests of the site. Considering that some of the materials are unstable and potentially explosive, and that sometimes unknown bottles of stuff have to be decanted into larger containers for shipping offsite, Labato and his staff have every reason to be careful. But for anyone who has been around volatile solvents, this is not very comforting. A conflagration would involve intense heat in close proximity to a variety of hazardous chemical, low-level radioactive and biological wastes. The facility is located at the southern foot of Horsebarn Hill, part of the Fenton River watershed -- which, if UConn were a water company, would be classified as Type I or Type II aquifer and be protected from development.

The logical place to relocate the hazmat facility is the North Campus, a less critical watershed. But Austin and Petersen both told me they preferred to see it ``off the beaten path.'' Petersen, a former chemistry professor, observes that ``life is risk, when you get up in the morning.''

Austin, too, said that ``Life is risky, and so it's a matter of where on the continuum of risk and cost you want to be.'' Austin lives in Farmington, outside the continuum of risk.

Austin has obtained from Attorney General Richard Blumenthal a formal opinion that UConn is not a water company, although it supplies water to 23,000 customers and operates one of the largest and oldest water systems in the state. The opinion, based on a technicality, effectively exempts the university from the statutory restrictions that prevent water companies from selling or building on sensitive watershed lands. Austin trumpeted the ruling as a victory. UConn could proceed with its plans for building on the agricultural campus, which lies almost entirely on the Fenton watershed.

Contamination of the Fenton watershed -- whether by a major release of hazardous materials or by the runoff associated with development -- would have the most obvious impact on the Willimantic Reservoir, which lies six miles downstream and serves another 22,000 people. But the impact would extend north, as well, into the I-84 corridor -- one of the fastest growing regions in Connecticut, according to a survey that appeared last November in The Courant, based on the U.S. Census Bureau's 2000 statistics and home sales. Tolland, just north of I-84, has seen dozens of new subdivisions and a 20 percent growth in population during the past decade -- compared to a 3 percent state average -- pushing the limits of its own water supply. Like Mansfield, Tolland and most neighboring towns depend on wells. If any of the river system becomes contaminated, or if UConn outgrows its water resources, or both, the university can't assume it can grab the next nearest supply.

Who at UConn is in charge of environmental affairs?

And what process guarantees that environmental issues will be given the consideration they deserve?

I raised these questions with each of the administrators I interviewed last October and November. The answers were fairly confused. It seemed that no one was in charge.

Frank Lebato's title is director of environmental health and safety at the university, but his role is limited to handling toxic wastes and water testing. The name that came up most often was Larry Schilling. The role of environmental manager has been piled onto Schilling along with his other tasks. As university architect, in charge of the physical plant, he is assumed to be knowledgeable about the environment. Schilling's boss, Dale Dreyfuss, who has charge of environmental issues pertaining to new capital projects, relies on Schilling.

President Austin too relies on Schilling. A telling moment occurred during hearings before the General Assembly's Environment Committee on March 13, 2000. Austin, who was there to testify before the committee, was complaining that the already streamlined process of getting UConn through environmental hoops was ``lengthy and exhaustive,'' and had a ``chilling effect'' on potential partnerships with industry. He was asking legislators for the ability to approve not just a single project, but a whole master plan for the North Campus.

Robert Maddox, then a Republican state representative from Brookfield, voiced concern for UConn's environmental stance. He asked Austin whether there was ``a toxic waste situation, a brownfield at UConn.'' Instead of answering the question himself, Austin turned the microphone over to Larry Schilling and sat down in the audience.

``Not to our knowledge,'' Schilling responded. He explained how the contaminated soil had been taken away, and dismissed the dump as a problem.

Schilling's response omitted the fact that the landfill still had not been capped. (Even now, two years later, it has not been capped and an engineering study is still under way to recommend the best procedure. So far, the cost of remediating the dump has come to $10 million. Actual capping is expected to cost another $5 million, Schilling told me recently.)

Schilling stayed at the podium to answer the environmental committee's questions. Maddox wanted to know the university's ``ecological vision.'' Neither Austin nor Schilling offered any response.

Before UConn2000 came along, Schilling's role was essentially custodial. He was the man everyone went to with questions about the physical plant. Ask Larry. Suddenly he was overseeing a billion-dollar construction program--more than he could reasonably be expected to monitor.

I asked Dreyfuss, Schilling's boss, whether he thought Schilling was competent to make the architectural decisions he was called on to make. Schilling, for instance, had favored tearing down the historic Farwell barn, prior to its being listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Dreyfuss, who himself displayed little patience for the barn, seemed taken aback by the question. ``Larry's a degreed architect,'' he said. With his silver beard Dreyfuss looked a bit like Zeus. ``He's a member of the AIA.''

``No he's not,'' I said.

``He is!''

``I'm sorry, he's not.''

Schilling had told me his degrees: a BA in architecture from Syracuse, a BA in engineering from Michigan State, and an MBA from the University of New Haven. He is not a licensed architect; nor is he a member of the American Institute of Architects.

Dreyfuss darted glances at UConn spokeswoman Karen Grava, as if to ask, How could this be? He was obviously flustered.

Later, I asked Schilling how he came by the title ``University Architect.''

Schilling smiled. ``It was given to me.''

``By whom?'' I asked.

``My boss. Dale Dreyfuss.''

``Was he under the impression that you were an architect?''

Schilling shrugged. ``It's just a title. It doesn't mean anything.''

Schilling's name, followed by the title university architect, is on countless applications for permits, FONSIs, submissions to the board of trustees and legal contracts, as well as letters to the Connecticut Historical Commission and various state agencies.

My point here is not to expose petty deception, but to illuminate a larger issue. Behind the tremendous momentum of UConn's capital building program is a vacuum of environmental leadership.

Last December, to everyone's surprise, the university announced that it was going to hire an ``environmental manager,'' whose task it would be to strengthen the institution's performance in environmental affairs. Austin announced further that the university would consider an alternative site for the hazardous waste facility.

Critics such as Margaret Miner of Rivers Alliance and Kurt Heidinger have welcomed the announcement, but also observe that the whole institutional stance at UConn must change. Helen Koehn, in a recent letter to the Council on Environmental Quality on behalf of Citizens for Responsible Growth, noted, ``Even a sincere person would be left in the precarious position of the chicken trying to watch the foxes.''

Efforts are under way around the state to get a legislative handle on what has been happening at UConn. Senator Prague, along with Rivers Alliance, has called for a legislative task force to investigate the situation. The CEQ has been looking into the legal questions concerning UConn's special privileges -- as has the Office of Legislative Research, at Prague's request. The League of Conservation Voters has been holding workshops to try to strengthen the Connecticut Environmental Policy Act -- since other entities are seeking to follow UConn's example. Adriaen's Landing in Hartford enjoys similar exemptions from environmental law. Special status also was obtained during a late-night session last summer of the General Assembly by developers of the 1,000-acre forested parcel in Middletown known as the Maromas tract. Developers elsewhere around the state are seeking the same fast-track status.

Last November, the Coalition for Pure Water -- made up of 11 conservation groups including the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, the Connecticut Audubon Society, Rivers Alliance and various watershed councils--urged DEP Commissioner Rocque to ``promptly issue regulations protecting drinking water aquifers across the state.'' The regulations, requested by the General Assembly in 1989, had been stalled at the DEP for 11 years. Rocque has since forwarded them to the state attorney general, as requested.

Heidinger observes that the long-stalled regulations have already been weakened by the lobbying efforts of developers, industrialists, dry cleaners and other special interests. ``The regulations, if they are accepted, will do some good for the state as a whole, insofar as they will protect aquifers that have never been protected before.'' But Heidinger worries that UConn's aquifers will remain unprotected, owing to the university's ``strategy of exploiting loopholes in the law and its determination to site high-risk facilities on Horsebarn Hill,'' as happened three years ago when UConn attempted to site a Pfizer animal vaccine research center there. That, he says, is the ``nightmare scenario. Other municipalities will be able to enforce the new regulations; Mansfield will not.''

Despite its history of domination by UConn, Mansfield has taken some unprecedented forward-looking steps as a consequence of the agitation from Separatist Road residents. Last summer, the town hired two consultants to examine the impact of the detention basin on water quality and study possible alternatives to the existing configuration of the basin.

One of the consultants, Gail Batchelder, a hydrogeologist and geochemist, stated in her report, released December 18, ``it is clear that less water will be available to recharge the aquifer beneath the developed area than was available prior to the development, since essentially all water falling on the developed area will be routed through the detention basin and into the stream.'' She warned that sedimentation and chemicals in the runoff could put the stream and nearby private wells at risk. She recommended monitoring the groundwater and suggested ``detailed scrutiny'' of the basin's design. She and the other consultant, George Andrews of Loureiro Engineering Associates, suggested a two-stage detention basin in combination with other steps to absorb runoff, in place of the oversized existing basin.

Whether the university will now take the lead in solving the problems created in its haste remains to be seen. Tom Callahan had earlier indicated the university's willingness to consider the findings of the consultants hired by the town. Callahan has said the university wants to be a ``good neighbor.'' The neighbors are eagerly watching. As Lamia Khairallah said at a recent meeting with an engineering consultant to the town, ``UConn could regain the support of the residents by correcting the mistakes they have made before moving on to other projects.''

The town took another important step. It commissioned a water supply plan of its own. The report, released in draft last October by Milone & MacBroom, an engineering firm with water resources expertise, steers clear of criticizing UConn's water supply plan, but suggests that the town might want to look for additional sources of water and to consider establishing a municipal water system.

The Milone & MacBroom study identifies the Meadowood subdivision, consisting of 29 homes, located just west of the UConn landfill, as well as the Lynwood-Hillyndale subdivision with its 124 homes as an area ``potentially in need of public water service.'' The report, still available only in draft as of this writing, notes that UConn has ``no plans for extension of public water service'' to either neighborhood.

Much will depend now on the DEP and on the study under way to map the plume. If Rocque determines that UConn has polluted the wells, then UConn could be ordered to supply potable water to the affected neighborhoods. Or, if UConn can change its environmental stance and become a better neighbor, an order might not be needed.

I ask Jean Kenny, ``How are you getting through all this?''

She laughs, at the edge of tears. ``At night, I pray to every saint. I have a whole litany. Seven or eight pages. It names every saint. I ask for wisdom, and I ask for help. I find it helps. Letting it go.''

``And in the morning? What do you do to get yourself into your professional mode?

``I sit on the edge of my bed and pray to St. Jude, the patron saint of impossible causes. Then I take a shower. And in the shower, I organize myself for the day.''

David Morse is a Storrs-based writer whose work has appeared in Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, The Nation and elsewhere. He has written several pieces for Northeast, including one on the harassment of Asian-Americans at UConn in 1987.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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