A Tangipahoa Parish warehouse shut down after hundreds of nursing home residents were evacuated there for Hurricane Ida was once part of a pesticide plant that is still under a decades-long cleanup order because of hazardous chemicals that leached into the ground.
State environmental officials say contaminants in underground water at the site have been reduced to levels that pose no serious health risk inside the warehouse, especially for short-term occupants, and issued a letter in 2015 saying the agency had no objection to residential uses for the property.
But other experts question the wisdom of housing vulnerable people at a site with such a history, saying even brief exposure to small amounts of noxious chemicals could cause issues such as respiratory problems and rashes for people who are already in weakened health.
"It would be like putting a very sick person into an area that is going to make them sicker," said Wilma Subra, an environmental scientist who works as technical director for the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, an advocacy group.
The hot, crowded and unsanitary conditions in the converted Waterbury Companies complex prompted state officials to revoke the licenses held by Bob Dean for the seven nursing homes evacuated there ahead of Ida. Seven of the 843 people taken there died in the aftermath of the storm and at least 50 were hospitalized.
State health inspectors found the residents were neglected in the Independence warehouse, lying in feces and urine for days at a time, many of them on mattresses on a warehouse floor that flooded.
Now the facility’s history and the lingering groundwater contamination around it have become another element in one of several lawsuits against Dean, his companies and the state Department of Health over the abortive evacuation effort.
A new filing claims Dean failed to live up to his duty under the nursing home “Resident’s Bill of Rights” to inform his residents that they would be taken to a building where they could be exposed to toxic chemicals. The suit alleges Dean publicly misrepresented the old Waterbury warehouse and its outbuildings as either an “alternative care facility,” an old “Fruit of the Loom” warehouse or an old “Febreze” factory.
“This is critical information that should have been shared with the residents and their loved ones," said Don Massey, a plaintiff’s lawyer who filed the lawsuit. “But instead it was concealed from them.”
John McLindon, a Baton Rouge lawyer representing Dean, said state agencies had no problem with the location of the shelter, citing the 2015 letter from the state Department of Environmental Quality and the state Department of Health’s approval of the evacuation plan for the group of nursing homes.
He added that Dean's companies never received any prior complaints from the public or government agencies about the facility.
“We have no evidence there has ever been any problem with fumes or anything like that,” he said.
State environmental department records show that for more than 30 years, under Waterbury and an earlier owner, Cline-Buckner, the buildings were used to mix chemicals and package them into aerosol cans for fragrances and pesticides.
Some of the chemicals stored there in large amounts were defined by federal regulations as hazardous materials, Waterbury’s emergency plans show. Operations ended in 2011.
The hazardous chemicals included the industrial solvents tetrachloroethene and methyl chloroform and the pesticide Propoxur, annual reports say.
About a decade ago, producers voluntarily withdrew Propoxur from use inside homes and in flea collars because of its potential toxicity to humans, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The groundwater contamination dates to before 1985, when the site was run by Cline-Buckner, DEQ records say. Trichloroethylene and vinyl chloride are among the pollutants being cleaned up under DEQ oversight since 1987.
Trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent, is a common groundwater contaminant and the frequent focus of long-running post-industrial cleanups.
A likely carcinogen, it breaks down underground into vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen. Both can vaporize from groundwater and seep upward into homes, even through cracks in concrete slabs, according to environmental regulators.
The contamination at the old Waterbury plant triggered lawsuits in the past from nearby property owners who settled out of court.
The latest reports to DEQ show the contamination continues to trend downwards and has been eliminated from some spots, but a few areas not directly under the old Waterbury buildings continue to have elevated vinyl chloride and trichloroethylene levels.
In an interview last week, Fernando Iturralde -- who supervises underground pollution cleanup for DEQ -- said it is unlikely vapor could travel into the buildings from the areas that still have elevated contamination.
In 2015, the real estate investment company that sold the property to Dean asked DEQ to greenlight the site for residential use, saying a company was interested in turning it into a nursing home evacuation shelter, according to DEQ correspondence. DEQ geologists issued a "no objection" letter to that use.
After years of cleanup, the groundwater contamination didn’t pose a risk because levels were low enough and what remained did not have a pathway to expose people, the letter said. Also, no one used the shallow aquifers for drinking water, DEQ noted.
Three months after the March 2015 letter, one of Dean’s companies bought the property for $918,000, Tangipahoa Parish land records show. Windsor Investment Group retained the groundwater monitoring responsibility and financed the building purchase.
DEQ's Iturralde said it is very unlikely the flooding that soaked mattresses and the floor in the buildings during Ida contained pollutants from the remaining underground contamination elsewhere on the site. DEQ officials said they have never tested the buildings' interiors for any vapors from the underground contamination.
State health officials have declined to say whether they considered the site’s environmental history before approving Dean’s plans to temporarily house residents there.
"While there are multiple ongoing investigations into this event, including our own rigorous review, I'm not able to answer most of your questions at this time," said Kevin Litten, spokesman for the agency.
Litten also declined to say whether the health department contacted DEQ about the site. DEQ spokesman Greg Langley said there's no record of any formal contact between the agencies.
Subra, the scientist with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, said that in addition to the underground contamination, the fact that dangerous chemicals were mixed inside the facility should be a concern.
A fifth nursing home resident who had been transferred to a Tangipahoa Parish warehouse ahead of Hurricane Ida has died.
DEQ's "no objection" letter didn't examine the risk of spills inside the buildings.
State health inspector reports from visits made during the Ida evacuation say nursing home residents were at first housed in three buildings on the old Waterbury site before flooding forced them into the main warehouse.
McLindon, Dean’s lawyer, noted chemical mixing did not happen in the large warehouse where most residents were housed. But he acknowledged some residents were, for a time, in a building that contained a chemical mixing room.
He pointed out that the chemical mixing ended 10 years ago.
Former Waterbury employees interviewed recently said the chemical mixing process occasionally produced spills. Those spills, they said, were immediately cleaned up.
Measuring up to a few dozen gallons, the spills were usually too small to hit the mandate for reporting to state regulators, the former employees said.
One of them, Andrew Truxillo, worked as a chemist at Waterbury from 1998 until shortly before it shut down. Truxillo said he would mix batches of up to 4,000 gallons of chemicals at a time in enclosed vats.
The spills were typically handled by sopping up the chemicals with absorbent blankets that were then put in hazardous waste containers, he said. Truxillo said he wouldn't feel comfortable sleeping on the shop floor given its history.
"Hell to the no, hell to the no," he said. "You don't know what they spilled on that floor years ago.”
Dr. Ray Dorsey, a professor of neurology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, said the most serious health risks from trichloroethylene -- such as Parkinson's disease and cancer -- result from long-term, not short-term, exposure.
But he added that the warehouse would “not be the optimal place for housing displaced residents” because of the risk of inhaling fumes from the residual groundwater contamination nearby.
Subra, too, said she is concerned about the possibility of toxic fumes seeping into the buildings, as well as about the persistence of spilled chemicals even after they’ve been wiped up.
"That was the most inappropriate location. They should have never taken the chance," she said.