An industrial process that illuminated 19th-century homes now casts a frightening shadow over the Hudson Riverfront as Cold Spring confronts coal tar — the dangerous residue left behind by a factory that turned coal into fuel for gaslights. Efforts to deal with the mess have become politically combustible.
A manufactured-gas plant (MGP), stood on land now occupied by the Cold Spring Boat Club, at 5 New Street. As a by-product of its work, the MGP created cancer-causing coal tar, an oily fluid laced with volatile compounds and the liquidity of motor oil. Altogether, the contamination taints about 14,700 cubic yards of soil. Name now unknown, the factory closed, probably before 1887, and vanished from sight, though pieces remain underground.
According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), charged with remediation efforts, the heaviest coal tar concentration lies under the Boat Club backyard and adjacent village parking lot. In a February report, the .DEC warned that the coal tar constitutes “a significant threat” to human health through “potential exposure to soil and groundwater” and imperils the environment through “impacts of contaminant to soil and groundwater and potential for impacts to the sediment and surface water of the adjacent Hudson River.” While some residents propose leaving it alone, William Ottaway, a DEC expert, told a public forum last month that coal tar “is a material you guys shouldn’t have sitting around in your village.” In its February report, formally called a Record of Decision, his department called for eradicating 22 percent of the contamination, or 3,234 cubic yards.
That’s not enough, some observers protest. “How come we can’t go in and look at 100 percent remediation of this site?” New Street resident Karen Phillips asked at a June 22 meeting, where Ottaway addressed the Village Board and local citizens. A letter to the Cold Spring Village Board from Patrick O’Sullivan, of Limited Editions Realty, Inc., mentioned upscale townhouse condominiums across Boat Club. The condo complex “was forced to clean up 100 percent of the mess that went across the road to that property,” he wrote June 22. “Why isn’t 100 percent being cleaned up on a much larger area? Also, is there a guarantee that the `stuff’ will not come under New Street from the Boat Club area and contaminate this new residential site?”
O’Sullivan said he sent the letter because he could not attend the June 22 forum but wanted to express his concerns; his office is on lower Main Street, not far from the Boat Club. “Why isn’t the whole property being excavated or why isn’t it being sealed or encapsulated to solve this problem?” he asked.
Such reactions prompted the DEC to begin second-guessing its plan. “We usually don’t do it,” said Ottaway, who works for the DEC Division of Environmental Remediation, but “I think it would be worth looking at this and revisiting the question.” He noted that some of his DEC colleagues also favored a more comprehensive clean-up.
Regardless of how expansive, the clean-up is certain to be expensive — $1,632,600 for the plan announced in February and $6.15 million for complete clean-up, with the State of New York footing the bill, although the village could see indirect costs in terms of street disruption, traffic control, and other spin-offs.
In the debate, the Boat Club looms large. The DEC met with the organization’s members and village officials last September. “They didn’t want the building taken down,” Mayor Seth Gallagher said in June, recalling the prevailing sentiment. The DEC’s February plan spared the building from demolition, although the department acknowledged that “significant contamination will remain under the Boat Club.”
“We don’t know in three dimensions what we have” below the structure, Ottaway said in June. “If we were to receive official notice from the village that they would like us to consider demolition of the Boat Club at this time, we would seriously consider that.”
Karen Phillips sought village action. “If there weren’t a boat club there the whole project could happen. Please reconsider the project,” she told the Village Board. “Can we take a vote for the village, please?”
At least one Village Board member seemed sympathetic. “If you’re going to put a shovel in the ground, get rid of all of it,” Trustee J. Ralph Falloon urged Ottaway. “Either don’t touch it, or get rid of it. Take your crap and get it out of the village. Why would you choose to let them seal it under the Boat Club?”
The village owns the Boat Club parcel, leasing it at no charge, though the club is expected to provide various forms of assistance, such as by providing ensuring space for a rescue boat. Club members said June 22 they feared loss of their headquarters without arrangements for a replacement.
Ottaway acknowledged that the Boat Club’s future complicates matters. “It’s a question of paying for reconstruction of the Boat Club,” he said. The state earlier expressed willingness to replace the building, he said. But that was before Albany’s budget difficulties got worse. “I think it would be hard to ask the taxpayers to pay for the Boat Club building,” Gallagher commented.
Tearing down the Boat Club also does not mean the state would clean up the entire area of contamination, Ottaway cautioned. According to a diagram in the February report, along with the area behind the Boat Club the contamination site includes a strip of park along West Street, a piece of New Street, and the Boat Club front yard near the piers. In some places, the hazards are insufficient to warrant tampering, which could lead to other trouble, Ottaway said. “That’s just not worth it — to create problems where there wasn’t one to begin with.” However, should the DEC ever find pollution seeping into the river, “we’d have grounds” for initiating more extensive efforts, he explained.
Meanwhile, given the spirited discussion, “I need to take the question back to the DEC” and find out what the process is for revising the February decision — it that’s possible, he said. His agency isn’t the only group to propose a solution that stops short of a total clean-up. A study conducted for the village government by Dvirka and Bartilucci Consulting Engineers, of Woodbury, N.Y., likewise favored a limited approach. Released in April 2009, the Dvirka and Bartilucci report “recommended that the remediation of the Cold Spring MGP site include the excavation of the most significant tar-impacted soil identified within the immediate vicinity of the former facility located west of the Cold Spring Boat Club building and within the Village of Cold Spring public parking lot.”
The action would likely improve groundwater quality, the consultants stated, although “some MGP-impacted soil would remain on the site and may continue to impact groundwater quality.”
Nevertheless, Dvirka and Bartilucci, too, pointed out that a broader approach, “the excavation of all MGP-impacted soil” and the extraction and safe disposal off-site of affected groundwater, “would be more effective” in “reducing the toxicity, mobility, and volume of contaminated soil and groundwater” and “provide the most protection to human health and the environment.”
Mayor Gallagher said at the June meeting that he concurred with the more conservative approach, as suggested by Bartilucci and Dvirka. “I thought at the time the less, the better. I still feel that way,” he said. “We don’t foresee removing the Boat Club in the near future.”
At the same time, he didn’t rule it out, though he predicted that if some residents want the Boat Club to go, others would undoubtedly be opposed. In any case, he said after the June 22 forum, “the Village Board was not against reconsidering it.”
Whatever course state and local governments settle on — even if the DEC follows its February plan — work is unlikely to commence before 2012. “Part of what we’re trying to do is listen to the community ahead of time,” Ottaway said.