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Sudden Death: What's In The Ground In Briarcliff Manor?

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Briarcliff Manor, a village of 8,000 people less than thirty miles north of New York City, looks a lot like what one might picture a place called Briarcliff Manor to look like.

Situated on just under 6 square miles of land in Westchester County, between Ossining and Mount Pleasant, Briarcliff is home to the Sleepy Hollow Country Club and a Trump National golf course. The median home value is around $750,000. And the time it takes to walk from one end of Pleasantville Road to the other -- that's the main drag with the bank, the hardware store and the café where the owner handed an entire jar of Nutella and a spoon to a young customer one day this summer - is just over three minutes.

"Briarcliff is like, kind of a little picture of perfection," says Jenny Rosen, 21, a senior at Bucknell University who grew up across the street from the Briarcliff Manor schools. With only 150 students per class, the high school is small enough to share its property with the middle school.

Briarcliff Manor Union Free School District, offering one of the nation's top high schools, is an important reason people choose to settle here. Many residents pay $20,000 a year or more in property taxes, a large chunk of which funds the public school system.

And 20 years ago if you told some of those parents - who patted their kids on their heads and kissed them goodbye before sending them off on the bus - that one day they'd consider suing their school for exposing their children to suspected carcinogens without their knowledge, they probably wouldn't have believed you.

But that’s what’s happening in Briarcliff right now. For years, the school let students play sports, have recess, attend summer camp and celebrate fall pep rallies with bonfires on a pair of athletic fields that were built on top of contaminated construction debris. At least eight of those students, residents say, have had cancer.

“Three close to me,” Rosen says, counting her friends who’ve had cancer. “Demetri, Alex and Nick.” She continues counting, adding three more to the list. “It’s a really small town, so you know the names.”

Whether the suspected carcinogens in the soil of the Briarcliff fields contributed to the startling number of cancer diagnoses among young people in the area in recent years can’t be known definitively. When it comes to environmental factors and cancer, cause and effect is difficult to establish.

Even so, several parents in Briarcliff say they still want answers about the athletic fields, why they weren’t made more aware of possible problems in the first place, and why someone other than them got to choose whether their children were exposed to toxins.

“I’m one of those really upset parents,” says Mark Santiago, 62. In order to get his children into one of the local nursery schools in Briarcliff when they were little, Santiago recalls literally having to work for them.

“You can’t buy them in,” he says. “You agree to work there.”

That’s how for a time, Santiago, who works as a consultant, became the school’s unofficial painter. It’s been 29 years since he moved to Briarcliff and he remembers that the real estate agent who sold him his house said that Briarcliff High School was the same as a private school.

Santiago sent his two children to the high school, and by virtue of having a pool and a large basement, his house became the hang-out spot for his daughter Olivia’s friends. One of those friends was Demetri Demeropoulos, a varsity lacrosse player for the school who died in May of 2010 from a spinal cord tumor at the age of 18.

“In a town as small as ours, when an 18-year-old dies, everyone knows, but it was a couple degrees more than just we knew him,” Santiago says, commenting on how remarkable and poised Demeropoulos was for a boy his age. “His death was personal to us.”

Knowing what he does now about the fields, Santiago sends his son and daughter, ages 26 and 21, for check-ups with a physician twice a year. He says his children’s school district always kept in close contact with families about the smallest of matters, like the time the air conditioning shut down at the elementary school.

“The kindergarten was sent home,” he recalls. “That, they tell me about that. They don’t tell me that apparently someone was dumping toxic materials into a field.”

The Briarcliff fields Santiago refers to are the result of a deal the school district made with a Yonkers-based company called Whitney Trucking in 1998. In exchange for allowing Whitney to dispose of construction debris on the school grounds, the company built a practice field and a softball field for the school.

In the years that followed, “fill for fields” deals became popular in Westchester County and at least three nearby districts participated in agreements similar to Briarcliff’s arrangement. School documents show that in exchange for being allowed to dump its debris in Briarcliff, Whitney promised the fill would contain materials acceptable for dumping, such as concrete, rocks and soil, and wouldn’t require approval from New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

Whitney gave the school a certificate of origin for 110,000 cubic yards of fill that they unloaded in Briarcliff. It was enough to fill 36 Olympic swimming pools.

Dirty Fill

One summer day in 1999, Fred Pierce, a facilities manager for the Briarcliff school, came upon two investigators from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation on the school’s property. Pierce later told his bosses that the investigators told him that someone had filed a complaint about Whitney, and that they didn’t think the fill was clean.

“I told them that we had documentation stating that it was good fill, and they basically told me that the paper I had was no good,” Pierce later wrote in a letter to the assistant superintendent.

DEC cited the Briarcliff school district for improperly accepting and disposing of construction and demolition debris in 2001. The district’s current lawyer, Michael Bogin, of Sive, Paget & Riesel, says negotiations began with the DEC to fix the violation that same year. The district hired the consulting firm Leggette, Brashears & Graham to dig test pits and install ground water monitoring wells on the practice field.

Bogin says the school wanted to complete its investigation of the fill as soon as possible, but hammering out an agreement with the DEC can take months, so the firm began testing with an informal go-ahead from the agency. Bogin says the practice field had been seeded by that point, but that students weren’t using it yet.

Several surface soil tests showed levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (or PAHs) that exceeded state public health and environmental guidelines.

There are over 100 chemicals classified as PAHs and the Environmental Protection Agency considers several of them to be probable human carcinogens. They can be found in things like cigarette smoke, vehicle exhaust, tar and even meat that’s been cooked on a grill. PAHs make their way into the body in three ways: people breathe them, ingest them, or make contact with them through their skin.

In November of 2001, LBG wrote to the DEC on behalf of the school district to say that it had determined the fill didn’t present a public health or environmental threat. But the letter also noted that more testing was needed to confirm that conclusion.
During the course of its work, LBG also found that some tar-like petroleum had made its way into the soil near the school’s tennis courts, which was another area where the district had permitted Whitney to dump debris. Bogin says the district paid to have that material carted away, which prompted them to sue Whitney for breach of contract in 2003. Although the Briarcliff district later won a judgment for $298,000 against Whitney, they were unable to collect because by that time, the company had gone out of business.

It was also in 2003 that the school board signed a consent order with the DEC, agreeing to pursue additional ground water and soil testing of the field in conjunction with an ongoing agency investigation. But according to school documents, the district stopped funding work on the project the next year.

Eventually, the district’s former lawyer asked LBG in a letter if there would be any problem with reconstructing the practice field. The project manager advised against it. The district went ahead though, covering up the monitoring wells and dumping clean soil over the contaminated fill.

Emily DeSantis, a spokesperson with the DEC, said in an email that the scope of LBG’s work, and any plans to remediate the field, were never formally approved. She also said that the district didn’t tell the DEC that there was still a softball field right behind the school that was also built on Whitney fill.

By 2007, Briarcliff parents were starting to complain about the fields. The athletes at Briarcliff were coming across strange things on the field during practice; a six or eight-inch nail here, a shard of glass there. One time, they found some wire.

“We would just pull that stuff off and throw it over the fence,” says Andrew Paulmeno, 21, who played several seasons of football at Briarcliff and now attends the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD.

While debris was a mere annoyance, dust made the field almost unbearable. Grass was dying on the field and as the season wore on, Paulmeno says it was like playing on dirt.

“You’d come back from practice, you’d pick your nose and you’d be pulling out solid black,” he recalls. “There was a permanent dust in the air. You couldn’t breathe without getting it in every part of your face or head. It was caked into your skin when you were done. It was everywhere.”

Some of the athletes said they had trouble breathing, and according to an email from a parent to the school superintendent, Frances Wills, one student said the dust tasted like chemicals. Wills assured the football moms that it was just the dry weather, but that they’d relocate temporarily. She also said she would have the soil checked out.

The school ordered another round of testing by another consulting firm, but the sample was small—nine taken from a 1.7-acre piece of land. That firm, too, determined that the fill wasn’t a threat to the students’ health, so the athletes began practicing again.

Wills, who has since retired from the Briarcliff school system, says she arranged a meeting for the parents of the athletes and that they were invited to review the test results. If the DEC investigation wasn’t mentioned, Wills says, that’s because she was under the impression it had been long ago resolved.

“I thought that we had been following this process,” she says. “Clearly, we had not, so this is where I once said that I thought we dropped the ball there. But I don’t think this is a situation where people did something deliberately.”

Lisa Tane, a former school board member, says the DEC issues were not made known during this second round of soil testing.

“When parents were raising concerns, we would have of course acted on it,” she says. “I would have asked more questions.”
Stacy Agona, who served on the board starting in 2007, says the same: she knew of the testing but doesn’t remember being told the full history.

“There was nothing about an open consent order,” says Agona. “The focus in 2007 was the dryness. It was a particularly dry summer, so that was the focus of the conversation.”

It wasn’t until 2010 that the school district closed the fields. (They are still closed today, and will remain so until all of the soil under the fields is remediated). It also was in 2010 that many Briarcliff Manor residents learned for the first time, they say, about the nature of the materials that had been sitting underneath the school fields for twelve years.

By that point, many former Briarcliff students were already sick.

Chip, Chip, Chip

The curved drive that leads to the Briarcliff Manor middle and high school campus is flanked with state championship signs in the schools’ colors, blue and orange. Out front, adjacent to the parking lot, is what remains of one of the practice fields.

Today, it’s waist-high brush with a rope strung around its perimeter. Back when the field was operational, it was the place that kids played while they waited for their parents to pick them up after school.

“The practice field looked like a state fair parking lot,” says Paul Mazzilli, a former analyst for an investment bank and a father of two, who lives in Briarcliff.

Mazzilli’s wife, Sharon Pickett, remembers trying to track down her son Nicholas, now 20, after school. Sometimes he was tossing around a football with friends, other times, he was chipping golf balls on the field.

“Chip, chip, chip,” Pickett says, raising her arms to depict the dust that would fly up with each swing. “He would come home and literally, he’d be picking stuff out of his teeth, picking stuff out of his ears, and God knows even where else.”

Mazzilli and Pickett have lived in Briarcliff since 1980 when they fell in love with a two-acre piece of land behind Sleepy Hollow Country Club. They raised their two children in a beautiful home on a winding private drive. From one of their living room windows, you can catch a glimpse of the Hudson River.

Pickett wouldn’t call herself a Ra-Ra-Go-Briarcliff type of mom, but she took on the role of class parent, led field trips to the Bronx Zoo and attended all her son’s sporting events.

“We never missed one,” Pickett says, seated barefoot in her living room, her hair tied back and not a trace of make-up on her face. Despite her involvement with the school, Pickett too says she knew nothing about the contaminated fill, until 2010.

“Might have been Demetri,” Pickett says. “He was supposed to be our son’s roommate in college.”

It was around the time that Demetri Demeropoulos was getting very sick, in 2010, that talk around Briarcliff about the fields started to circulate. A year later, in June of 2011, the Mazzillis’ own son was diagnosed with thyroid cancer after a doctor felt a growth in his throat during a routine appointment for a physical.

“The doctor said to Nicholas, ‘It’s very treatable. There was another young man from the community that we just treated successfully,’” Mazzilli recalls.

Nicholas asked the doctor if that young man’s name was Alex Demeropoulos, Demetri’s younger brother. The doctor said it was.

“The doctor put his head in his hands,” Pickett remembers, and began crying. Pickett says he then asked her son: “Where’d you go to high school?”

A top surgeon removed Nicholas’s thyroid two weeks after that doctor’s appointment and then he went through sequences of radioactive iodine treatments. The Mazzillis are among three families that have notified the school district that they may sue. They say they’ve heard that there may be as many as 10 young people from Briarcliff diagnosed with cancer.

“The thing anybody with a soul might have done is just say, ‘We’re going to shut this down,’” Mazzilli says. He wonders aloud why no one at the Briarcliff schools just admitted, “we made a mistake.”

Maybe it had something to do with trying to protect the area’s image and its property values, he says. Whether the fields contributed to Nicholas’s cancer or not, it doesn’t change his parents’ feelings about what has happened.

“The fact that they were just so negligent and so just, self-serving. I think it just makes us sad and makes us, not even angry. I’d love to be angry,” Pickett says. “That’s what Paul says. ‘Why don’t you like get up and scream and yell?’ And I’m just more sad than angry.”

After Nicholas asked his parents what people not as financially well-off as them do about cancer, the Mazzilli’s started a fund for early cancer detection at Hudson River HealthCare, a non-profit that provides low cost or free primary health care for at-risk populations. It’s the only bright side the family sees to Nicholas’s situation.

Mazzilli emailed the new Briarcliff school superintendent, Neal Miller, who came aboard a little over a year ago, after Nicholas was diagnosed. He asked Miller to let him know what he planned to do with the information about his son’s illness.

Miller wrote back to say that he was sorry to hear the news, that he would bring it up at the next board meeting, and that he would make a note of it in Nicholas’s pupil file.

“It felt like shit,” Mazzilli says, describing his reaction to Miller’s email.

A Right To Know

When Blaise Benza, 21, and his father, Brett, talk about his 8-month battle with leukemia that began when he was 14, it’s clear that his years of being in remission bring a sense of not only relief, but of pride.

Blaise went to Briarcliff for sixth, seventh and eighth grades, playing baseball and going out for recess on the softball field behind the school. A bad sore throat prompted a doctor’s visit five weeks into his freshman year at Fordham Prep, a private high school. After his pediatrician took a blood test, she called to say that Blaise should get to a hospital immediately. He was diagnosed with Burkitt’s leukemia.

He’d spend most of the next eight months in and out of hospitals getting aggressive chemotherapy, made worse by an initial misdiagnosis. Burkitt’s leukemia is so rare that the doctors Blaise initially went to in Westchester treated him for another type of leukemia.

“I don’t remember the first four days,” Blaise says, looking towards his dad to fill in the details. Benza added that the treatment the hospital provided nearly destroyed his son’s kidneys and left him on dialysis temporarily.

Before long, Blaise moved to another hospital and the repetition of treatments—getting blood taken by the same nurse, for example—felt normal.

“You have your own routine that you get used to, so it’s not really scary anymore,” he says.

Blaise couldn’t go outside for the month of November that year. Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve were spent in the hospital, and so was Christmas, when his family ordered Chinese food.

“When I did go outside, that first time, I had to wear a mask and wasn’t allowed to take the mask off,” he recalls. “Going outside wasn’t going outside.”

Blaise’s last day of chemo was in May of 2006. It’s been six years, and Blaise has had no signs of cancer. Six feet tall now, he once weighed only 82 pounds.

“We’re sitting here and Blaise looks great, and he is great,” Benza says, seated in an apartment in a Chelsea high-rise where he lives. Blaise is a senior at Villanova. His persistence, or stubbornness, allowed him to move ahead with his peers to the 10th grade, even though he spent the majority of 9th grade at Columbia University Medical Center.

It also cost $1.5 million to pay for his treatment and months of aggressive chemotherapy to get him to where he is now.

“We’re not sure if he can have children because of the timeliness of this whole thing. We don’t know the long term effects that this illness had on his heart, his system in total,” Benza says. “So while we are very thankful that he is here and we’re thrilled, we don’t know what the long term effect is. To kind of say that he’s healed, and that’s all we want, well, that’s not really all we want.”

The Benzas have not filed a lawsuit against Briarcliff but they haven’t dismissed the idea either.

“If I had found out two years ago, before they closed the whole thing down that these kids were sick and I didn’t know about it, I would have been on a war path,” says Benza. “At a minimum, parents had a right to know.”

One In A Million Risk

The secrecy that seems to have surrounded the Briarcliff fields ended in 2010. Newly elected Briarcliff board members uncovered the DEC investigation and the school district has erred on the side of being very public about disclosures since then.

In January of 2010, there was a special school community fields presentation, by a board member, Eric Bashford.

“The only way we found out about this is a community member happened to mention to a board member a few weeks ago that they had heard about a rumor of contaminated fields,” Bashford said in his presentation, which was videotaped and posted to the school’s website.

The school hired another consulting firm, HDR, to do testing on the fields and the DEC was alerted to the existence of the landfill beneath the softball field.

HDR’s investigative plan was approved by the DEC and it confirmed much of what the previous firms had: PAHs are in school soil. They also concluded that there are few risks to students’ health.

“There’s this window that’s used, a one in a million risk up to one in 10,000,” says Mike Musso, a project manager from HDR.

“The data here, we’re close to the bottom end of this decision. We’re closer to a one in a million risk than to a one in 10,000.”
The school will be sending their remediation plans for the fields to the DEC to review soon. According to Musso, they involved extensive use of soil caps to safeguard the fields.

DeSantis, the DEC spokesperson, noted in an email that the school’s plan had not been reviewed yet, but that such caps have worked well elsewhere. What’s unclear is why it took Briarcliff ten years to make real headway on any of this. The DEC would not comment as to what they consider to be “timely” completion of their orders.

The school’s lawyer, Bogin, says the investigations have been thorough. “I was confident that they had done a reasonably complete investigation even when we first came on board,” Bogin said.

Both Agona and Tane, the former board members, say they believe the testing conducted over the years has been sufficient, and neither of them has any problem with their children having played on the fields.

But other parents still question why they were not made more aware of the existence of the DEC investigation in the first place. Several former board members could not be reached for comment, but Wills, the former superintendent, says nothing about the fields was ever intentionally hidden; rather it was discussed at school board meetings in the years before email was the norm.

“It was a different time,” she says. “You had board meetings and, you know, people who came and people who didn’t.”

Wills points to the strong reputations of the consulting firms that were hired as one of the reasons the district acted as it did. At no time, she says, did anyone suggest that the fields posed any dangers to the kids. When they put the clean soil over the contaminated fill, she says she thought they were following the DEC’s recommendations. She says she knows some parents in Briarcliff believe that the school played a role in the sicknesses, and deaths, of children under her watch.

“I am personally devastated. But that’s nothing compared to what parents feel when they even think that something in the school, which is a safe environment, could affect their child.”

Pressed about why she and the school didn’t publicly disclose more about the investigations to parents, Wills repeatedly says that it occurred in a “different time” and that she wasn’t sure what was made known to parents beyond disclosures at board meetings.

Whether or not the school district faces liabilities remains to be seen. A New York State Education Department spokesperson declined to comment on what responsibility the district had to make the situation with the fields more known to the public.

Robert Graham, a partner with Jenner & Block who practices environmental law and has no involvement in the Briarcliff case, suggests that timing could prove crucial in court.

“The fact that there was this seven year delay here would be a material fact in this case,” says Graham.

Had the school been following the consent order, Graham adds, they would have been filing progress reports to the DEC, which might have raised parents’ awareness as well. In effect, he says, the school made it harder for the community to know about the order by virtue of not following through on it.

Max Costa, chair of environmental medicine at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, says tying cancers to environmental factors is notoriously difficult.

“There’s all these things that have to be met to prove causation,” Costa explains, “It has to be the exposure was high enough, the agent can cause the disease, the time element has to be right.”

PAHs have typically been associated with cancers of the lungs, skin and bladder, but existing research has yet to show ties to several of those found in Briarcliff. The time it takes for chemical exposures to cause cancerous growths in the body is estimated to be 20 to 30 years, though Costa says leukemia can take less time to develop.

The Briarcliff cases don’t conform with these timeframes because the children’s diagnoses surfaced relatively early after their use of the fields. However, Costa notes that children are developmentally different from adults and says that most of the studies on cancer and chemical exposure focus on the occupational hazards adult men face.

“This is not a good thing to do, use a waste dump site to build a ball field for kids to play on,” Costa says. “Whoever did this is an idiot. I don’t care how much the levels are or what could have happened: it’s playing with a time bomb and you don’t know.”

But Logan Spector, a pediatric cancer epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota’s Masonic Cancer Center, says the distribution of the cancer cases in Briarcliff fit the pattern you’d see in almost any group of young people—so it’s hard to link those cases to PAHs in the sports fields.

However, just how PAHs interact with one another and with metals like lead, which was also found in the fields, hasn’t been fully studied yet.

“Construction debris by nature is not clean,” says John Wargo, a professor of risk analysis and environmental policy at Yale. “It’s a really nasty, complicated mixture of chemicals that are pretty well recognized to be hazardous.”

Wargo argues that because of the varied nature of this debris, which could range from pieces of an incinerator to furnaces, more samples should have been taken over the years, with much tighter grids than were mapped out. He also says that he would have counseled Briarcliff differently and told the district to dig up and dispose of all the debris. He considers the soil caps Briarcliff has used in the fields a temporary solution that just leaves the problem looming for the next generation to solve.

“There are a whole bunch of reasons why I would say that this was seriously insufficient, and that’s not making any claim about causation between the exposures and the cancers,” says Wargo. “But it’s no way to manage the environment of children.”

Cancer-causing or not, Wargo argues that the Briarcliff situation raises questions about whether anyone has the right to expose people to known hazardous substances without their knowledge or without their consent.

His answer is no.

And that seems to be what the families in Briarcliff are getting at in their questions about what has occurred in their town. They know they aren’t going to find definitive proof linking their children’s cancers to the fields today, but they’re still worried that some illness might emerge years from now and prove otherwise. Nicholas Mazzilli’s doctor’s appointment last month showed no signs of thyroid cancer, but he’ll keep having to go to get checked.

“We have relief right now,” says Pickett, his mother. “But you know, you’re going to hold your breath for years.”

This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store.