Village to Ask DEC to Reconsider Coal Tar Decision

Board and residents not satisfied with 20 percent solution

By Michael Turton

In a way, there was little need for discussion at a workshop Aug. 27, of the Cold Spring Village Board regarding remediation of coal tar near and under the Cold Spring Boat Club. Mayor Ralph Falloon’s opening statement proved prophetic and was reflected in a resolution passed by the board later in the meeting, a move that resonated with most of the approximately 25 people in attendance.

“I don’t want to leave any hazards for our children or the next generation; and I don’t want to see the next generation have no boat club,” Falloon said. “I’m in favor of asking the DEC (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation) to reopen their Record of Decision (ROD) to get as close to 100 percent remediation as possible.” As it stands, DEC’s plan is to remove only about 20 percent of the coal tar, excluding deposits directly beneath the boat club building.

DEC would remove only 20 percent of toxic material

The toxic coal tar is a byproduct left behind by a Manufactured Gas Plant (MFG) during the 19th century. In part, the gas was used for street lighting prior to the introduction of electric lights. Estimates put the number of MFG sites in the state at more than 300. Studies by the National Institutes of Health indicate that “exposure to coal tar may lead to an increased risk of lung, scrotum and skin cancer.”

Pockets of toxic coal tar remain beneath the Cold Spring Boat Club and in areas around it. Photo by M. Turton

Pockets of toxic coal tar remain beneath the Cold Spring Boat Club and in areas around it. Photo by M. Turton

In July, Village Attorney Stephen Gaba advised the Village Board that DEC is gearing up for a September approval of the design for remediation of the coal tar, and that unless the village contacts the state agency requesting an alternative, remediation would be based on the ROD – resulting in only 20 percent of the substance being removed – and not include removal of the boat club building or coal tar under it. If nothing changes, DEC could begin work in November of this year, taking three to four months to complete.

That news contradicted previous discussions between the village and DEC. At a Village Board meeting in April 2011, DEC representatives indicated they were willing to reconsider their 2010 decision not to demolish the boat club building as part of the cleanup. Razing the building would facilitate removal of the coal tar beneath it. (See DEC Again Cites Willingness to Revisit Plan to Not Remove Boat Club, from April 18, 2011.)

“The last time we met publicly (including DEC) we were saying, ‘We don’t know if we want to leave anything there, ’ ” Falloon said. He added he assumed that after DEC did test borings under the building, there would be a further discussion regarding the nature of the remediation. Instead, Falloon was shocked to receive word in July of this year that DEC’s original decision would stand and the building would remain intact – along with the coal tar.

“I thought, holy crap! Did I agree to something I didn’t realize I’d agreed to?” Falloon said. “They (DEC) are selling the fact that this stuff is so thick, that if left undisturbed it’s not a health hazard. It can be contained,” he said. “It’s bad enough that they want to remove some of it. They’re opening the can of worms – but they only want to remove half a can.”

Effectiveness questioned, possible future costs to village a concern

Trustee Matt Francisco expressed doubt about the effectiveness of the 20 percent solution. “They (DEC) have said they’ll do up to the building, put in two feet of clean fill and a vapor barrier – clearly indicating that migration is possible,” he said. At previous meetings, concern had been expressed about the possibility that, over time, pockets of coal tar could migrate into the Hudson River.

“They may be doing that (removing only 20 percent of the coal tar) to keep their own budget down,” Francisco said, referring to the DEC Record of Decision. “The value of a clean site is much greater than the value of the building. As a business deal … if I want a freebie, I want (it) on environmental cleanup – not the building.”

He was referring to the fact, cited a number of times in the meeting, that once the village signs off on cleanup of the site, with the cost being covered by DEC, the village will be responsible for future remediation. In other words, the more thorough the cleanup paid for by DEC, the less financial risk the village will have in years ahead. Previous estimates put the cost of the 20 percent remediation at $1.6 million and a complete cleanup at $6.15 million.

Trustee Stephanie Hawkins agreed with Francisco that, “the cost of remediation is much greater than the cost of the building. I don’t think the building defines the boat club or our relationship with the club.” Trustee Bruce Campbell said that while in the past, “DEC indicated they may pay for reconstruction of the building,” that was no longer the case, DEC officials having cited the cost of numerous other projects throughout New York State as the reason for the reversal.

Residents voice opinions, resolution passes easily

Several residents weighed in when Falloon asked for public comments. Greg Phillips lives across from the boat club, and put the onus on the village to ensure a complete cleanup. “It’s not about what’s there right now. It’s about the village owning the property. If that’s where the ownership is – that’s where the responsibility is,” he said. “If it were a vacant lot, it’s a no-brainer.” He asked the board to look at the site as a piece of property – not as a boat club that currently occupies the site. “To take only part of it (the coal tar) … is ridiculous.”

Karen Phillips, Greg Phillips’ wife, was vocal in her criticism of DEC and urged the Village Board to unite in demanding a thorough cleanup. “There were so many ideas out there (at previous meetings) and according to (DEC official) Bill Ottaway everything was feasible,” she said. “There was a push to investigate all the possibilities. Now, the door has been closed.”

Phillips pointed out that there have been two hurricanes in recent years, a factor that she intimated could have caused coal tar to migrate. “How does anyone know what moved where?” she asked. “That’s the reality I live in … the what ifs.” She went on to challenge the Village Board “to stand together and say this is unacceptable. We want you to shoot for 99 percent (cleanup). That makes much more sense.”

Brad Petrie, vice commodore of the Cold Spring Boat Club, said that a decision to remove the building, “is not … free,” and stressed the impact it would have on the boat club and on the community. “Don’t commit to something if you don’t know the price tag …” he said. “I think it’s irresponsible … without knowing the facts. What happens to the boat club for a year? Where are our boats? The waterfront itself is going to be very disrupted and it is valuable to the village as a whole.”

In the end, Falloon suggested that the Village Board ask DEC to reopen their Record of Decision and reconsider an alternative that will result in “as close to full remediation as possible.” That approach was passed unanimously as a resolution.

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