Some of UConn’s closest neighbors are more worried about hundreds of thousands of dollars in pesticide research fees, corporate secrecy, and what the hell the school may be putting into the local drinking water.
The focus of this controversy is the UConn Research Farm, located a couple of miles south of the main Storrs campus in Mansfield, just off Rt. 195.
Residents who live in the Storrs Heights neighborhood are all whipped up because they can’t find out everything that’s being tested for commercial clients at that research facility right next door. Their fear is those chemicals could be contaminating ground water and private wells used for drinking water.
University officials say they’re prohibited from releasing all the information they have about those experimental pesticides because of restrictions on “proprietary information” in UConn’s contracts with the companies involved. School spokesmen insist their neighbors have nothing to worry about, that all the stuff has been approved for agricultural crops, and everything is safe as can be.
Somehow, those assurances haven’t convinced the Storrs Heights folks. Gregory Haddad, their local legislator (who happens to live in that same neighborhood) is offering a bill in the General Assembly to force UConn to reveal everything it’s using at its Mansfield research farm.
“I don’t know why the state, i.e. UConn, should be jeopardizing our water supplies,” says Neil Facchinetti, a retired professor from the university’s school of pharmacy. “It seems ludicrous to us.”
“I feel the university has an obligation to be forthcoming,” Haddad says when asked about his bill. “I personally feel they’ve been a bit less than forthcoming.”
Thomas Callahan, an associate vice president at UConn, insists the university has done everything it can legally do to be open and above board. He says all the information that “could be made available” without violating contracts has been given to those homeowners.
Gregory Weidemann is dean of the UConn College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and he warns that Haddad’s proposed legislation could cost the university the $250,000 to $300,000 it now earns from those controversial research contracts. “Potentially, we would lose the ability to do that sort of research,” he says.
This is far from UConn’s first water controversy. In fact, this one was triggered by the same thing that’s sparked several other fluid-based debates: the search for more water.
UConn’s 3,100 acre campus and more than 20,000 students in Storrs use between 1.25 million and 1.5 million gallons of water a day. In 2005, the university sucked the Fenton River dry.
Conservation has since cut campus water consumption, but the university is now looking for more sources of water to bring as much as an additional 2 million gallons on campus to meet future demands. That’s where the proposal to tap into the Farmington River watershed comes in — a plan that’s got people out there kind of upset. UConn bigwigs insist that’s just one option and that nothing’s been decided yet.
Back on the research farm, scientists in 2008 were looking for more water for irrigation at their 157-acre facility. The plan was to drill for it, and that got some of the farm’s neighbors worried that the university might suck up all the ground water and dry out the local residential wells.
Callahan says lots of testing and promises the school wouldn’t pump out enough water to cause problems appeared to satisfy those homeowners. But then, he explains, “the conversation then morphed” into questions about what pesticides were being used on the farm and whether there might be pollution.
Facchinetti says those concerns were triggered because more research appeared to be going on at the farm and more pesticides were being tested.
Weidemann says university officials have done everything they can to assure their neighbors that all safety concerns are being met. Lists of most of the pesticides used on the farm have been made public.
UConn receives about $3 million a year in research funding for the farm, according to Callahan, and only a small portion of that involves confidential commercial research.
Weidemann says all the chemicals used on the research farm’s 25-30 acres of test fields meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency safety standards and have been given an “experimental use permit.”
Nearly all of the confidential pesticide tests are being done for the turf-grass industry, the folks looking for better ways to keep your lawn looking weed-free. Weidemann adds that most turf pesticides that UConn can’t talk about are currently used on various types of food crops.
The companies involved don’t want the names of those chemicals released because they don’t want competitors knowing that they are “exploring new markets,” Weidemann says.
Even the names of the companies that have hired UConn to do this pesticide testing are confidential under the contracts, according to Haddad.
Claims that the EPA has approved all this chemical stuff being tested and that it’s been cleared for use on other types of plants besides turf grass don’t necessarily ease the minds of a lot of people.
Groups like Toxicaction.org and the Sierra Club warn that lawn pesticides can be very harmful to humans and the environment and that their increasing use is becoming a major environmental issue. Connecticut lawmakers had such concerns about lawn pesticides that they banned their use at elementary and middle schools.
“We don’t address the toxicology side of that,” Weidemann says of the lawn pesticide controversy. “We try to stay out of the debate about relative safety and risk.”
What UConn has done for their neighbors is drill test wells near the border of the farm and do several checks each year to see if any of the pesticides are leaching into the residential areas next door. So far, says Weidemann, none of the tests have found anything that “exceeded national drinking water standards.”
Haddad and Facchinetti and their friends aren’t satisfied.
“They don’t test for all the chemicals used at the farm,” says Facchinetti, who spent 29 years teaching pharmaceutical science. “They don’t test often enough.”
“A large number of our neighbors feel uncomfortable,” Haddad warns. “They feel unsafe drinking their own well water.” Some have started buying bottled water or installed carbon filtering systems, options that can be expensive.
Facchinetti admits that no one has complained of any ill health effects as a result of pesticide-contaminated well water.
“We want to keep it that way,” he adds, “but the precautions, the safeguards are not in place.” Facchinetti is also worried that there is more at stake for UConn than scientific integrity:
“There’s big money in it for them.”