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More than Love Canal: Infamous toxic site just the tip of NY's pollution woes


Potentially hazardous TCE levels at the former IBM microelectronics plant have been largely reduced to acceptable levels based on the most monitoring results, say officials from the Department of Environmental Conservation.
(Photo: Jeff Platsky / Staff photo)

Elmira High School is one of 1,290 active and 220 potential toxic legacy sites statewide, according to an analysis of state records by the Elmira Star-Gazette.

Some, like the former IBM site in Endicott now owned by i3 Electronics, are still working factories. Others, such as the Morse Industrial area in Ithaca, are abandoned or mostly abandoned.

The largest, by area, is the Seneca Army Depot. The former munitions storage and disposal facility covering 10,600 acres in Seneca County is polluted with an array of hazards ranging from industrial solvents to radioactive waste, the extent of which is still being uncovered.

These sites might be classified as “brownfields” — targeted for use by a private owner, or state Superfund — most of which are orphaned and left as a taxpayer problem. Some are also designated as a “national priority” on the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund list, which means the urgency of the problem warrants federal funding.

What most share in common: industrial pollution spilled, leaked or dumped that tends to be hard to remove and hard to isolate.

PCBs, for example, can be spread by windblown dust and sediments in water. Industrial solvents, like TCE, can poison aquifers and create toxic vapors that move through the ground and drift into basements through a process called vapor intrusion.

Reliable records of exactly what or how much was spilled or dumped are generally scarce. Cleanups often span generations, and questions almost always linger.

In Rochester, administrators of Rochester Prep High School decided to vacate a building they leased at 690 St. Paul St. last year amid sustained student protests over concerns of toxic chemicals left at the former Bausch and Lomb manufacturing site.

As with the Elmira school, state health officials have assured the building is safe after a system was installed under the foundation to prevent TCE and other hazardous chemicals from infiltrating.

But the cleanup is not complete, and sampling shows “off-site vapor intrusion is a potential exposure pathway that warrants additional investigation,” according to records from the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

In Niagara County, the legacy of Occidental Chemical Co.'s disposal practices have left many lasting impacts. The most notorious is Love Canal — the neighborhood built over a 70-acre toxic dump, and later evacuated and condemned.

Today, the chemicals at Love Canal remain entombed in the ground, covered with an impermeable liner, and surrounded by monitoring wells and systems to collect runoff. Although some nearby streets have been reoccupied, the small working-class homes and school at ground zero have long been demolished, and the area remains fenced off.

And that’s the way it will stay: State and federal governments have declared the Love Canal cleanup complete.

At the other end of the state, General Electric is winding down a cleanup of PCBs in the Hudson River first detected in the late 1970s. The federal Environmental Protection Agency determined that waste was dumped from two of the company’s capacitor manufacturing plants and spread along 40 miles of the river.

After years of study and litigation, the company dredged 2.7 million cubic yards of sediments along 40 miles of the river between 2009 and 2015. Testing and monitoring of the sites is expected to last at least another generation.

In notorious company with both Love Canal on the western end of the state and the Hudson River cleanup on the east sits Onondaga Lake, more or less in the center.

Once the pride of indigenous peoples and location of the council fires for the famed Iroquois Nation, the lake was critically polluted by mercury, PCBs and a multitude of other waste dumped by Allied Chemical throughout the mid-20th century.

Honeywell, Allied Chemical’s successor, dredged 2.2 million cubic yards of lake bottom in 2014, although the pollution ran far deeper. In a plan to prevent it from bubbling to the surface, approved by the federal EPA, the company capped 475 acres, leaving close to 10 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment buried under the lakebed.

Similarly, a toxic waste site on the western shore — deemed too expensive to excavate — will instead be covered over with dirt and asphalt, according to a cleanup plan recently released by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Leaving the bulk of hazards entombed in the ground falls well short of making things right, according to environmental advocates.

“Superfund is supposed to be a removal program, not a capping program,” said Judith Enck, former EPA Region 2 administrator under President Barack Obama. “Polluters advocate for capping for one simple reason: It is cheaper than removal.”

With too few Superfund dollars to go around, the EPA “has to negotiate to get as much as it can, because it has so little financial leverage,” added Enck, now a senior fellow at Bennington College.

Love Canal, the Hudson River and Onondaga Lake are counted among the state’s most dire environmental warnings. Costs of cleaning these three iconic legacy sites alone reportedly exceeds $2 billion, and that doesn’t factor in health impacts, litigation, and a generation of economic and environmental losses tied to each site.

The scale of pollution is epic but not unprecedented. Many less famous catastrophes in New York state pose severe and lasting threats, costing taxpayers and private industry billions in cleanup, and health risks that defy a price tag.

Hundreds of municipal drinking supplies serving millions of New Yorkers have fallen victim to ravages of unchecked 20th-century industry. Today, these remain offline or fitted with special “air strippers” to purge contaminates. They include more than a dozen municipal wells in the Southern Tier, stretching from Johnson City to Olean.

The Kentucky Avenue Wellfield Area, covering 7,680 acres in Chemung County, has the dubious distinction of being, by area, the third-largest active hazardous waste site in the state. It was taken offline in the 1980s, and the aquifer remains poisoned to this day by TCE and other hazards.

For more than 30 years, the EPA has been working on plans to restore the Kentucky Avenue aquifer by treating groundwater at an old Westinghouse site that appears to be the source of contamination.

Timeline: From steam engines to Elmira High School

Timeline of the northern portion of an 83-acre industrial site on which the Elmira High School is built.

B.W. Payne and Sons build steam engines.

Morrow Manufacturing manufacture machine parts and tools.

Remington Rand makes typewriter and adding machines.

Chemung County Industrial Development and Westinghouse use property for storage and other purposes.

Property deeded to Southern Tier Economic Growth Agency.

Southside High School (later to become Elmira High School) is constructed.

Sampling shows PCBs and metals at concentrations above DEC sediment screening criteria on small parcel adjacent to the school’s southeast corner.

DEC traces petroleum contamination near Miller Pond to the high school property.

Groundwater samples collected by DEC officials from school property show a class of hazardous compounds called chlorinated organics in addition to petroleum.

School officials report concerns about student illnesses and exposure risks to the state Department of Health.

The state finds TCE under the school and recommends measures to reduce potential exposures by controlling heating and air conditioning systems.

State health officials document an unexplained spike in testicular cancer among students and recent graduates from 1997 to 2000. The report finds “no apparent public health hazard,” however. Officials say people were unlikely to come in contact with the buried chemical hazards.

The school installs systems to vent hazardous vapors from under two portions of the high school – the new K Wing and the Gymnasium -- as part of a broader plan to manage risks.

A report by the state Department of Health and federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry finds breathing TCE vapors at the levels found in the school “is not expected to harm people's health.” The agencies recommend actions to reduce levels, however.

Remington Rand’s successor, Unisys Corporation, reaches an agreement with the state to clean the site. Testing finds PCB’s underneath parking lots and playing fields ranging in depth from a few inches to 10 feet.
“Substantial areas” are found with concentrations from 50 ppm up to 33,930 ppm, although “delineation of known areas of PCB contamination [is] incomplete.”

Unisys installs another sub-slab depressurization system in the F-wing, which was built over a degreaser area.

Unisys spreads mulch over some areas of lawn polluted with PCBs. Test wells show volatile organic compounds migrating off-site although “no private or public drinking water supply wells are within proximity to the migrating plume,” according to state records.

Tests showed PCB contamination flowing along Coldbrook Creek to at least 18 properties downstream.

Unisys removes 6,500 tons of PCB contaminated soil under the south parking lot and tennis courts.

Unisys removes another 6,800 tons of PCB contaminated soil under the south-east parking lot and bus loop. It also removes some PCB contaminated soil on the football field and accelerates testing and cleanup schedule on school grounds. More tests are scheduled to determine the extent of pollution off site.