July 3, 2016
Albany Times Union – 2016-07-03
The Patroon Creek bubbles east from Colonie into the city of Albany, barely noticeable as it wends beneath Interstate 90 and a rail line, passing by fading industrial parks and struggling neighborhoods on its way to the Hudson River.
Few of the thousands of commuters who pass over the creek daily likely know of its history as atoxic courier, nor of what Patroon Creek exemplifies: how even the most aggressive efforts to clean up contamination usually fall victim to agonizing delay and inadequate funding, often leaving poisons to imperil upstate New York neighborhoods for decades.
“Superfund is running on fumes; if we had more resources we would see quicker cleanups,” said Judith Enck, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s administrator overseeing Region 2, which includes New York and New Jersey. She added that it’s also the polluters who sometimes “slow walk” and deliberately delay the cleanups. “They make it as lengthy aprocess as possible because they want to put off paying the cost.”
As a result, toxic risks recognized long ago continue to confront New Yorkers throughout the state, a legacy of the lax dumping standards that characterized America’s industrial sites for generations. Patroon Creek is but one example of the often slow response to citizens’ health fears, a practice that’s been repeated at Superfund sites around the region.
For years, the tiny stream carried mercury and PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, that were dumped down the embankment of a Patroon Creek tributary at the former Mereco manufacturing plant on Railroad Avenue, about 1,000 feet north of the University at Albany.
The state of New York began documenting the contamination in 1981. Two years later, the EPA placed the site on its fledgling National Priorities List of the federal Super-fund program, established in 1980 to clean up the nation’s most polluted land and water.
Despite the earlier attention from regulators, the Mereco site took decades to clean up. The delay underscores the challenges that state and federal officials said they face in assessing thousands of polluted sites scattered across New York, from chemical spills on Long Island to toxic landfills near Buffalo.
Public records indicate there are 85 federal Superfund sites in New York, which are considered the most severe cases, and also roughly 465 state Superfund sites that pose “a significant threat” to public health or the environment. The Superfund sites don’t include so-called brownfields, which are moderately contaminated sites, such as corner gas stations with leaky fuel tanks. There are also nearly 2,500 polluted sites that have not yet been evaluated, according to state records.
The backlog, in part, is a result of limited government resources.
Last year, the fallout of manufacturing pollution struck Hoosick Falls, a factory village in eastern Rensselaer County that for decades has been a hub for small plants that produce niche products such as heat-resistant wiring and nonstick coatings. The contamination of public water supplies in Hoosick Falls spurred criticism because the state Health Department and elected leaders told residents their water was safe to drink for more than a year after the officials were made aware that a dangerous chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid, had polluted the community’s underground wells.
The discovery of elevated levels of the man-made chemical, PFOA, prompted the EPA in December to demand that state officials warn residents to stop consuming the water. A month later, as questions mounted about the actions of state and local officials in Hoosick Falls, New York’s environmental commissioner, Basil Seggos, declared PFOA is a hazardous chemical. He also announced several manufacturing plants believed to be responsible for the pollution would become state Superfund sites. Seggos did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.
Some residents in Hoosick Falls worry their longterm exposure to PFOA may have caused cancer or other serious illnesses, and their concerns are not unique.
The Times Union examined other communities where the public was exposed to toxic chemicals from manufacturing or dumping. In some instances, residents who live near polluted sites or former industries said they have suffered health problems due to possible exposure to chemicals. In other instances, people said they have lost hope that anything will be done to clean up their neighborhoods and water supplies.
In the Mereco case, records show it took eight years for the company, which reclaimed mercury from light bulbs and thermometers, to sign an agreement with the state to identify and fully clean up the pollution. The company initially removed a large amount of contaminated soil. By 1999, as the state struggled to get the company to comply with the plan, the EPA stepped in and took over. Still, it would take until 2013, more than 30 years after the contamination was discovered, for the EPA to secure removal of the remaining 173 tons of hazardous soil.
Lois Gibbs, who became a national environmental figure 35 years ago when she took on federal and state officials over the pollution of her neighborhood, Love Canal, that was built on a toxic landfill in Niagara Falls, said there is inconsistency in the 10 EPA regions in dealing with environmental disasters.
“In other states, EPA has just turned a deaf ear and a blind eye to every one of these problems,” said Gibbs, who remains a prominent voice on environmental issues as founder of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice in Washington, D.C. She said that, while many other EPA regions do not do enough to protect the public, New York’s EPA administrator, Enck, is an exception.
The center was involved in the water crisis in Flint, Mich., “for more than a year before their water was shut off,” Gibbs said. “EPA’s been really horrible under this administration with the exception of climate change. … Historically, EPA has always been sort of the safety net, if you will. People could always appeal to the EPA and say our water is nasty… but the EPA isn’t always stepping in at these sites.”
The region’s most widely known Superfund site is a 200-mile stretch of the Hudson River from New York City to Hudson Falls, Washington County, where General Electric Co. operated a capacitor-manufacturing facility for decades. The EPA estimates that GE flushed more than 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the river between the 1940s and 1970s, when the chemical was banned.
Although GE is completing a dredging project of the Hudson River that will cost more than $1 billion, the cleanup came only after the company spent millions of dollars opposing the project.
“General Electric fought EPA for a quarter century, including going to federal court to try to get the federal Superfund statute ruled unconstitutional, which luckily they did not prevail on,” Enck said.
Travis Proulx, a spokesman for Environmental Advocates of New York, said funding for Super-fund cleanups is growing thinner on the federal level but New York is in its first year of a $1 billion program that calls for $100 million to be spent annually for 10 years on cleaning up state Superfund sites.
“These are horrifically polluted sites that are very dangerous to the communities that they’re in,” Proulx said. “Had this large investment over a long period of time not happened over the last year we’d probably be having a different conversation about Hoosick Falls right now. … Historically, government has done just a very poor job of holding polluters accountable.”
Rensselaer and Columbia counties are still dealing with the fallout of contamination at the Dewey Loeffel landfill in Nassau, where the EPA estimates at least 46,000 tons of industrial and hazardous waste were dumped in the 1950s and 1960s. The landfill, which was operated by Richard Loeffel and later his son, Dewey, became the dumping ground for toxic waste that included solvents, waste oils, sludges and liquid resins. The landfill’s main customers included General Electric and Schenectady Chemicals, which later became SI Group, according to the EPA.
In 1968, the state pursued legal action against Dewey Loeffel after complaints that cattle and fish downstream from the landfill were dying.
Four years ago, the EPA reached an agreement with GE and SI Group calling for the companies to pay $10 million to filter the contaminated groundwater.. . .