EDITORIAL: Toxic waste is your problem too

CONSIDER IT A GOOD THING that so few people turned out last week in Valatie to hear about how a small group of citizens finally got the federal government to start cleaning up one of the nastiest, potentially harmful toxic waste sites in the region if not the whole state. Or maybe not.

The cleanup at the Dewey Loeffel landfill site in the Town of Nassau just over the Rensselaer County line is real. It’s now officially a federal Superfund site and the Environmental Protection Agency is monitoring a project to pump water contaminated by a cauldron of industrial chemicals out of the ground to a new treatment plant, where most of the bad stuff is removed. Then the water is dumped into a nearby stream.

That nearby stream is called the Valatie Kill. The stream threads its way past the landfill, which has been closed for nearly half a century though it remains a poisonous hotspot. It then travels south through Nassau Lake and from there southward again to Kinderhook Lake and on to Kinderhook Creek and eventually into the Hudson River.

Last March about 200 people showed up to hear a presentation by EPA officials, who sought to allay Columbia County fears that treated water from the plant was a threat to residents the Towns of Kinderhook and Chatham who live along the Valatie Kill or on Kinderhook Lake. That presentation must have achieved its goal, because only about 15 people from Kinderhook and Valatie showed up at last week’s gathering at the Lutheran Church to hear what kind of grassroots effort it took to jumpstart a major cleanup of the site.

In the 1998, thirty years after dumping stopped at the landfill, two women who lived in the Nassau area came to believe that local cancer rates were higher than normal. They worried about the health of their kids. They knew about the Dewey Loeffel landfill because every so often some of the 46,000 tons of chemicals, including PCBs, used to catch fire at the 19-acre site, and whenever it rained hard, domestic animals on properties along the Valatie Kill downstream of the landfill died suddenly as a toxic brew seeped from the site into pastures.

The women were rebuffed by the state when they first asked for a health study, but they didn’t give up. They kept pushing for action. The state Department of Environmental Conservation did make some progress forcing General Electric and another large company associated with the original pollution to remove some of worst stuff. But in the meantime an underground plume of toxic waste spread southward contaminating the wells of nearby homes.

The group started by the two mothers was called UNCAGED, an acronym for United Neighbors Concerned about General Electric & Dewey Loeffel landfill, Despite setbacks and delays, the women didn’t give up.  And their efforts continue even now, as the EPA has stepped in and forced the companies to pay for cleaning up water from beneath the landfill as thoroughly as available technology permits.

In Valatie last week the local audience was vexed. Criticizing the releases of water from the new treatment plant, former Kinderhook Supervisor Doug McGivney told the gathering, “You’re taking a groundwater problem in Rensselaer County and making it a surface water problem in Columbia County.”
The data released by the EPA don’t support that allegation, since the traces of chemicals that remain in the water flushed into the Valatie Kill indicate the levels are far below federal safety standards where those standards even exist.

Worse, this attitude sets up a Them-vs.-Us situation between two communities that should instead be forming bonds to keep an eye on the progress of federal and state regulators and, in particular, the companies that created the problems in the first place.

The citizens of Nassau aren’t foisting their problem on their neighbors to the south. The Dewey Loeffel landfill is a problem for all of us who live in this region just as the PCBs GE dumped into the Hudson River were a threat to all the communities along the river.

The EPA has taken meaningful steps toward an eventual cleanup of the Dewey Loeffel landfill Superfund site, but removal of the threat is years away. If Kinderhook and Chatham want to be sure that the positive trend continues they will have to form their own UNCAGED-like citizens group to monitor the cleanup and press for progress. And the more friends they have the more effective they will be.

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