OUTSIDE YOU SEE A GREEN METAL building. The meadow next to it, covered in snow, is surrounded by a chain link fence. Below the dirt lane next to the fence, hidden by trees and gullies, is the Valatie Kill. Welcome to what was the Dewey Loeffel landfill, now part of the National Priorities List of the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. People are more likely to know the shorthand version: a Superfund toxic waste site.
General Electric and a few other manufacturers used Dewey Loeffel’s field from 1952 to 1968 to dump industrial wastes, including suspected carcinogens with names like polychlorinated biphenyls and 1,4 dioxane. No one knows exactly what all was buried there. It wasn’t the kind of operation that kept careful records.
This dumping in the rural Rensselaer County Town of Nassau near the border with Columbia County didn’t break any federal laws. President Richard Nixon and Congress created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and two years later the Clean Water Act was signed into law. The only reason the dumping stopped at Dewey Loeffel in ’68 was because neighbors along the Valatie Kill complained to the state that cows and fish were dying and there were unexplained fires at the landfill.
The dumping ended but the nasty stuff beneath the ground didn’t go away. It started moving.
At first there was runoff from rain and snow that carried toxins into the Valatie Kill and from there downstream to Nassau Lake and further downstream, possibly to Kinderhook Lake. To stop the runoff the dump was covered with clay and later surrounded by a wall, turning it into a kind of cauldron. But the cauldron leaked.
The landfill and surrounding area sit atop fractured bedrock, and fluids buried beneath the meadow have seeped through cracks. They form a plume that’s headed south, mostly. The progress of the plume is being tracked by special monitoring wells and by testing the wells of nearby homes, some of which are polluted.
The new building at the landfill houses a complex water treatment system funded by GE and SI Group, a successor company to one of the original polluters. The facility is staffed by a private firm paid for by GE and SI Group–Superfund calls for polluters to pay–and monitored by the EPA. Inside, the building looks like a small brewery or a jumbo laundry minus the clothes. A maze of tanks, hoses and filters scrubs the water until the pollutants can no longer be detected. Then the treated water from the plume is poured into the Valatie Kill.
Local officials and residents are angry that the EPA would allow the release of treated water into the Valatie Kill without first informing downstream communities, in particular the towns of Kinderhook and Chatham. They’re right. The EPA should have known that people along the path of the stream don’t want to feel like they’re kept in the dark, regardless of whether experts believe there’s no human health risk from the water.
But the EPA’s initial mishandling of outreach, a problem now being addressed with public meetings and assurances of more widespread sharing of information, should not distract us from acknowledging the importance of the agency’s mission here. It’s been 46 years since the last toxic load was dumped at the landfill and until recently the efforts to staunch the escape of toxins were incomplete at best.
Dewey Loeffel was added to the Superfund a little more than two years ago and now a new facility is removing poisons 24/7 at no expense to taxpayers. The EPA is developing a long-range plan to systematically remove and dispose of whatever toxins remain. This is welcome progress by any standard. Without the EPA we’d still be waiting and the plume would continue to advance with nothing much to stop it. There are more than 80 Superfund sites in New York State alone, some more threatening than this one.
Citizens may want the EPA to do more–like public health studies, which the agency does not conduct–and do it faster–as compared to what, GE? But there’s no magic formula to make this nightmare go away. We all live downstream of toxic messes. We all have benefitted from low prices resulting from not having to pay the true costs associated with disposing of materials used to make the products we depend on. The EPA is not the enemy. It is the best and most effective ally we have.