BROOKHAVEN, Long Island - It was a cold, snow-capped morning in January and Theresa Palermo, a retired teacher from Frank P. Long Intermediate School in Bellport, bundled up in a down coat before making her regular trip to visit her best friend, also a former teacher at the school.
That trip would bring her to Woodland Cemetery on Long Island, where Mary Chavious is buried.
"I want some answers," Palermo commented on the drive over, undeterred by the icy roads that at one point had her car sliding.
"Right here," she said approaching Chavious' headstone and placing a small stone on top.
"So, she knows I was here," Palermo remarked.
Chavious died of ovarian cancer in 1998. Since then, Palermo has lost 13 other co-workers at Frank P. Long Intermediate School to cancer.
"It left a big hole in my heart," Palermo said. "It's still there. It's tough."
Palermo is among 21 other cancer survivors who have worked at the school.
"Sometimes I feel guilty that I survived," she said driving back from the cemetery.
In all, Palermo and her fellow teachers have counted 35 teachers at Frank P. Long who have contracted cancer and 14 who have died since about 1998, adding up to more than one a year.
Back at her home, Palermo said she believes toxins from the Brookhaven Landfill, a hill of trash nearby, are to blame for the cancers and other illnesses experienced by people at the school.
"I keep going with my gut," Palermo said. "I'd like them to move the school."
Concerns about toxic chemicals coming from the landfill have been mounting for years since the facility opened in 1974, but it's only recently that Palermo and other teachers compiled this comprehensive list of teachers, working at the school, who have contracted cancer.
They shared those statistics with the New York State Department of Health and 7 On Your Side Investigates.
The state has now agreed to begin a review assessing "whether the number of staff who have developed cancer is unusual and whether there are any patterns that might suggest any particular cause," according to a DOH spokesperson.
It's not just teachers describing mysterious illnesses. Students have complained to 7 On Your Side Investigates about rashes, stomach aches and headaches tied to their attendance at the intermediate school.
"You feel helpless because you have a child who is in pain," said Keith Ferguson, whose daughter has complained of debilitating headaches and stomach aches since she began attending Frank P. Long.
"You feel like somebody is looking at you like you are just some hysterical housewife. You feel crazy," said Caroline Wilkinson, who has fought for additional testing for toxins at the school ever since her son attended the school and began experiencing a barrage of unexplainable health ailments. "It couldn't be this many coincidences."
Concerned community members have pressed both the South Country School District and the Town of Brookhaven Council to move the school or close the landfill.
At a recent town council meeting, a small gathering of concerned community members protested and pleaded with council members during a public comment period.
"I mean please, wake up!" one parent exclaimed.
However, in a written statement to 7 On Your Side Investigates in February 2018, the New York State Department of Health insisted that "extensive environmental testing data does not indicate a need to close the school."
7 On Your Side Investigates spent months analyzing years' worth of testing related to air quality at the school and toxins potentially coming from the landfill.
The most recent air testing completed in late November and provided to 7 On Your Side Investigates via a FOIL request in January produced tens of thousands of air samples at Frank P. Long and another location near the landfill.
According to the DEC, the test location near the landfill detected levels of hydrogen sulfide, at times, above New York state standards.
Yet at the school, less than one percent of the readings detected the chemical that can cause headaches, throat irritation, stomach upsets and even death, and none of the one-hour averages measured surpassed state standards.
In a December 2017 letter, the DEC Regional Director Carrie Meek Gallagher wrote that tanks used to contain gases produced at the landfill "continue to be a problem. The use of potassium permanganate in the tanks was not successful, so the Town recently started field testing a new hydrogen peroxide system."
Gallagher added, "This has prompted us to focus our efforts and the Town's resources on hydrogen sulfide monitoring and control."
It's not the first time the Town of Brookhaven has made efforts to contain gases at the landfill. For instance, it installed a system of pipes to collect gas in 1998 and added 10 gas extraction wells in 2016.
Previous air quality studies have also detected other hazardous chemicals such as Benzene, 1,2-Dibromoethane, and other volatile organic chemicals.
However, analysis of the several test results led the DEC to conclude that the concentrations "were typical of other suburban areas in New York State," and that "the predominant source of benzene in the community" was "motor vehicles."
A review of the test results by DOH also led the department to determine that "adverse health effects would not be expected from exposure to the levels of VOCs measured at the time of sampling."
Environmental advocates complain that much of the testing to date has been flawed.
"The state is not looking for the problem, therefore they're not finding the problem, and that is a problem," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizen's Campaign for the Environment. "You can't ignore public health because you don't have an answer."
Timeline of the Brookhaven landfill and health problems at Frank L. Long
Timeline of the Brookhaven landfill and health problems at Frank L. Long
Esposito said air quality testing ordered by the school district and presented to the public last summer failed to test during odor events.
That study returned several readings of VOCs "above typical background" levels in the Frank P. Long basement and in outdoor samples but the DOH determined it did "not believe that additional indoor testing is warranted."
Earlier evaluations examining school nurse records in the 1990s failed to find an increased pattern of health symptoms on days when odors from the landfill were recorded.
School staff has complained those records were not well kept.
However, 7 On Your Side Investigates analysis of more recent attendance records held by the state Department of Education did not indicate a higher rate of absenteeism at Frank P. Long compared to other schools.
Also, an evaluation of cancers reported among people living near the landfill from 1982-1992 and 1993-1996 did not show a "significantly different" number of cancer cases "from the number expected," according to DOH.
Esposito and other community members have complained that the study failed to examine teachers who spend a large amount of time at the school but do not necessarily reside in the immediate community or consider students who may have moved out of the area following their attendance.
"I think that what we have here is a charade," Esposito said.
7 On Your Side Investigates showed the state's findings to a published expert on toxic chemicals.
Chemical Toxicologist Harold Zeliger reasoned that while the state is right, no single chemical surpasses health standards at the school, the combination of chemicals present at the school is a problem.
"Even though the data for these individual 34 chemicals is small, they aren't present in high concentrations, the effect of adding it together is what causes illness," Zeliger said. "Mixtures cause health effects at considerably lower concentrations than single compounds do."
7 On Your Side Investigates requested an interview with the South Country School District Joseph Giani to discuss this new interpretation of air quality test results, but his assistant declined our requests.
When 7 On Your Side Investigates waited for hours outside Giani's office, he avoided us, allowing the assistant superintendent for personnel to move his car.
Despite promises from Nelson Briggs that the superintendent "will be out in a little bit," he never materialized.
The following day, Giani's assistant emailed, referring us to a past letter Giani wrote in August 2017.
"I want you to know that ensuring the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff continues to be our number one priority," the email read.
"To me, that says a lot," Palermo said. "My father once said that if somebody can't look you in the eye and have a strong handshake, then there's something not trustful about that person."
The town of Brookhaven also declined requests for an interview.
In a written statement, the Commissioner for the Department of Recycling and Sustainable Materials Management, Matthew Miner, in charge of overseeing the landfill said:
"We work diligently every day to operate our facility safely and efficiently with constant oversight and monitoring. We will continue to work together with the school district the community and the New York state DEC in doing this. We are confident the health issues being described are not being caused by the landfill."
The state declined requests to directly comment on Zeliger's theory that the combination of chemicals, likely coming from the landfill, are what made people sick.
"Nothing we have reviewed has changed the conclusions of our previous report," a DOH spokesperson wrote in a statement to 7 On Your Side Investigates.
That report indicated that DOH believed adverse health effects would not be expected at the school from the levels of chemicals detected.
The state also said another round of outdoor air quality testing would begin this spring to continue monitoring for hazardous chemicals.
Despite the DOH statements, many teachers, parents and community members continue to have concerns due to ongoing air quality tests showing even a minor degree of toxins at or near the landfill.
Palermo said she's hopeful that ongoing testing will offer an explanation that makes the death of so many friends more than just coincidence.
"I hope I'm making you proud girl," Palermo said while looking at Chavious' headstone. "I hope I'm making you proud. I love you and miss you."
DO YOU NEED A STORY INVESTIGATED?
Jim Hoffer, Danielle Leigh and the 7 On Your Side Investigates team at Eyewitness News want to hear from you! Call our confidential tip line 1-877-TIP-NEWS (847-6397) or fill out the form BELOW.
You can also contact Jim and Danielle directly:
Email your questions, issues, or story ideas to 7OnYourSideJim@abc.com
Email your questions, issues, or story ideas to 7OnYourSideDanielle@abc.com
If using the app, click here to send us a news tip