Saturday, April 10, 2010

Dewey Loeffel and The Toxic Legacy of General Electric

 Since 1878 the General Electric Company has been a vital part of the economy and culture of this region, and is proud of its history. From its earliest days under the guiding genius of Thomas Edison, GE was a pioneer in the development of electric light, radio and television, home appliances, jet engines.  For a century and more, upstate families have grown prosperous, thanks to GE, and many local retirees still count, with some anxiety in recent years, on GE's dividends.

However, there is another legacy of GE:  the toxic byproducts of  manufacturing that were were dumped throughout the Hudson and Mohawk watershed.  Many people are familiar with GE's decades-long resistance to cleaning up the toxic sludge dumped into the Hudson from its Fort Edward plant.   Less than a month ago, the Albany Times Union reported that GE and the EPA were still clashing over the depth and frequency of the dredging that will be necessary between Fort Edward and Troy.

According to the EPA, the quantity of toxic PCBs in the river is almost triple initial estimates because "hot spots" were much deeper than predicted, and were sometimes covered with logging debris from mills upriver. EPA wants to dredge more river bottom more deeply but less often, to capture more PCBs while causing less stirring up. GE has a different view, so the cleanup slows down while the conflicting views are referred to a panel of independent experts.

The Dewey Loeffel toxic dump lies in the beautiful countryside 
north east of Nassau, NY

The Hudson River, however, is not the only place where GE dumped polychlorinated biphenyls and other industrial waste such as paints, solvents, resins and oils. Beginning in 1952, GE arranged with a Rensselaer County landowner, Dewey Loeffel, to use 11 hilly acres of his property on Mead Road in the town of Nassau as a dump site and this arrangement continued until ended by the state in 1968. (To be accurate, GE wasn't the only contributor to this dump. Bendix Corp. and Schenectady Chemicals, both still in business, gave their share.)

 The Dewey Loeffel landfill, 42 years after it was closed

Forty-two years later, poisonous chemicals  from this site are still at high levels in  the waterways of Rensselaer County, while generations of GE-hired lawyers and experts  have  dragged their heels over every attempt to clean up the 46,000 tons of carcinogenic material.

According to the EPA, GE operators had, by 1974, covered and graded the drum disposal area, oil pit, and lagoon with soil, and constructed drainage channels to control runoff. In 1980, GE entered into an agreement with NYSDEC to perform additional investigation and remediation at the facility. 

For all this time, it seems apparent that the company lacked any sense of urgency. It was not until 1980, for example, that a series of tests by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation even determined that the toxic waste was spreading into local waterways and aquifer despite the initial work done on the dump. This discovery resulted in GE removing 500 surface drums and four 30,000 gallon oil storage tanks, and installing a NYSDEC-approved slurry wall, clay cap, and leachate collection system during the years from 1982 to 1984.

Water is still seeping from the landfill

Twenty (Yes, twenty!) years later, in 2000 GE spokesperson Joan Gerhardt said that the company would begin to remove the contaminated spill "voluntarily and at its own expense in the spring." (of 2001) Miss Gerhardt observed that this voluntary step would be "a headstart on the cleanup" while the DEC continued to mull over the company's 1998 proposal for a larger cleanup. GE, at that time, was monitoring only 22 wells in the area, even though the water from the landfill flows across two counties on its way into the Hudson at Stockport.

 A tributary of Valatie Creek a mile southwest of the Dewey Loeffel Landfill

In 2000 it was determined that the sediment in Nassau Lake, which is formed by a dam on Valatie Creek, contains 2.3 ppm of PCBs and that fish in the lake had many times that level, although the water itself had no detectable PCBs. (SOURCE)

According to the EPA, this dam keeps PCB-laden 
sediment restricted to Lake Nassau

The fish in Nassau Lake still have dangerously high  PCB
levels 42 years after Dewey Loeffel was closed

Over the next two years, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation held many meetings with local residents and produced two lengthy  Record of Decision documents in December 2001 and January 2002.
By 2004, GE had removed approximately 15,000 tons of PCB-contaminated soil and sediments from the site drainage-way between the facility and Nassau Lake.
A person might assume in 2004 that the Dewey Loeffel mess was finally being cleaned up, 36 years after it was closed.

Not so.

The flood of paper continued over the past six years and the Town of Nassau now has on its website thirteen more documents composed from the last two years alone. The audio of the March 4, 2010 meeting is well worth listening to, because it was at this meeting that the federal EPA joined the state DEC to provide one more disappointment to long-suffering local residents.

On the audio you will hear federal EPA official Mel Hauptman tell residents that "Everyone should understand that it is a slow process" and "This area is polluted enough it could be still on the list in a hundred years when we are all gone." Using GE-provided graphics, Mr. Hauptman  took those present on a tour of the toxic sites reaching from the landfill down Valatie Creek into Nassau Lake.   Hauptman said of  fish in the lake  that "there may be a downward trend but I'm not getting too excited" since the toxicity is still so high that neither humans nor wildlife could safely eat the fish.  He tried to be reassuring to the audience  about dangers to human life and health from contaminated groundwaters and wells.

Although there was little good news for those at the meeting in the VFW Hall on Lyons Lake Road, Hauptman said that the toxic chemicals were not (yet) spreading further downstream on the Valatie Creek: "The lake is acting like a trap to keep PCBs from proceeding downstream."

However, children and pregnant women are advised to eat no fish from Kinderhook Lake, so apparently some PCBs are drifting downstream. The virtual absence of fishlife in Valatie Creek below the Niverville Dam is puzzling and may be related.

Valatie Creek flows south from Lake Nassau

through North Chatham

into Kinderhook Lake

and then joins Kinderhook Creek in the village of Valatie

Despite Hauptman's assertion that the toxic chemicals are limited to the waterways north of the Nassau Lake dam, downstream residents need to get involved in the fight that the people of Nassau have been waging for so long. Finally, under the Obama administration, there are signs of life within the previously moribund EPA and the Dewey Loeffel site is under consideration for addition to the EPA Superfund. This will, if approved,
"allow the EPA to make the responsible parties clean up their contribution to contaminating the site."

We are currently in a 60-day comment period, which began March 3,  in which the public is encouraged to voice their opinions on giving the  Dewey Loeffel  landfill Superfund status.

For instructions on submitting comments, go to:

Cross published at All Voices

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