NASSAU–The federal government is stepping in and recognizing an environmental disaster that has impacted residents in this Rensselaer County village for decades and continues to threaten communities downstream along the Valatie Kill in Columbia County.
A 60-day public comment period began Thursday for residents to weigh in on the Dewey Loeffel toxic waste dump. Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency told a crowd of local residents Thursday that the EPA will add the site to the National Priorities List, which would make the closed dump and Nassau Lake, where chemicals from the dump have been found, a federal Superfund site. This would allow the EPA to put pressure on G.E., Schenectady Chemical and Bendix– the latter two firms now under different ownership– to fund further remediation.
Last year state Department of Environmental Conservation officials asked the EPA to place the site on the National Priorities List. EPA officials collected sediment samples from Nassau Lake in August, and Mel Hauptman of the EPA said Thursday that the site scored 50 points on the agency’s Hazardous Ranking System, well above the 28.5 points necessary for a site to qualify for inclusion on the list.
Residents’ had mixed reactions to the prospect of having federal government step in as lead agency on the cleanup project, which until now has been overseen by the state DEC. One person asked how much money the cleanup would cost them and if federal budget cuts affected funding for cleanup. Mr. Hauptman responded that the cleanup would be entirely funded by the firms responsible for dumping. “This project isn’t even in the federal budget,” he said.
Some residents voiced skepticism, questioning whether the EPA would take this project seriously, or if the agency would place a higher priority on toxic sites elsewhere.
But one resident praised the EPA for getting involved, reminding others where she said the blame should be placed. “It was one individual doing what he wanted with his land that caused all this,” she said.
In the 1960s Dewey Loeffel turned his 19-acre property into a disposal site for 55-gallon drums containing industrial hazardous wastes, including solvents, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), scrap metals, sludge and solids. More than 46,000 tons of toxic chemicals were dumped into a lagoon, oil pit and drum burial ground. PCBs are suspected carcinogens, and are known to adversely affect the development of fetuses and children.
The toxins migrated from the dump to streams, contaminating fish in Nassau Lake and the upper Valatie Kill, which were closed in 1980 due to contamination. The EPA estimates 1.7 miles of wetlands near the dump have been contaminated.
In the 1970s, the local fire companies responded to fires set by arsonists at the dump and reported black sludge with thick ash and smoke filling the sky, polluting the environment. The DEC then built a fence around the dump site, quarantining it in terms of access from the outside, but that did not stop the dangerous materials from escaping, nor did earlier efforts aimed at confining the chemicals where they were dumped.
GE has taken responsibility for seven sites in New York, including this landfill, and has also funded the construction of a new $2-million dam at Nassau Lake.
The DEC obtains fish samples each year, gathering the fish in May or June to ensure consistent comparisons from year to year.
DEC biologist Michael Kane released the results last week of studies of fish samples taken from Nassau Lake and the upper Valatie Kill in 2009. He concluded that many species have not shown improvement in levels of PCBs present in their tissues.
“Most of these fish are way too high,” in terms of PCB levels, he said, adding that such high levels are “not protective of fish-eating wildlife.” And in terms of human consumption, Mr. Kane said, “There’s no reason the health department would say these fish are OK to eat.”
The state health advisories are very specific. It advises the public not to eat fish from Nassau Lake. The state also advises that people eat no fish from the Valatie Kill caught between Route 18 and Nassau Lake; between Nassau Lake and Kinderhook Lake women of childbearing age and children under 15 should eat no fish from the stream. Everyone else is advised to eat only one meal per week of American eel, bluegill or redbreast sunfish from the Valatie Kill.
Women and children should eat no fish from Kinderhook Lake, which is fed by the Valatie Kill. Men are advised to limit their fish consumption to one meal of American eel meal per week.
Assemblyman Tim Gordon (I-108th), whose district includes Nassau and northern Columbia County, issued a statement before the meeting last week, calling the EPA recommendation to add the Dewey Loeffel Landfill to the Superfund list “very welcome news that has been a long time coming.” He said that being on the list would bring “additional resources and assistance to prevent further contamination and ensure the safety of the surrounding community.”
Residents may submit public comments about the Dewey dump at www.regulations.gov after entering docket code #EPA-HQ-SFUND-2010-0075.
Documents may be viewed at www.epa.gov/superfund/sites/npl/current.htm.