Communities and Their Contaminated Pasts

“The primary contaminant of concern is coal tar, a dark, oily liquid with a powerful and unpleasant odor that migrated to a depth of 34 feet. In some areas, strings of tar were found at a depth of 60 to 70 feet and have spread widely beneath and beyond the site boundaries. The groundwater plume extends approximately 3,800 feet south of the site and is about 600 feet wide. A village public water supply well is located immediately adjacent to the site….”

This is an environmental horror scene from a former manufactured gas plant in Hempstead, NY. You can repeat this story to shock your friends and family by switching out a few local details or substituting in a different contaminant, but chances are there is a boarded up old building in your neighborhood that is equally haunted by its industrial past. In fact there are over 1,300 of these sites registered in New York State today, existing in most every city, village or any other place where people have chosen to live and open businesses.

The State Superfund Program was designed to manage these sites and protect the public from toxic pollution migrating to neighboring properties. As the program remediates some of the most contaminated properties in the state, often by self-financing the cleanups to expediently protect public health and later recouping costs from responsible parties, the program comes with a significant price tag. The program was last refinanced in 2003 with a $1.2 billion bond authorization that ran through the 2012-13 budget year.

But we are currently in the 2013-14 budget year… and the toxic plume is traveling towards the village supply well!

Luckily, the program is still running, albeit on fumes, paid out of the leftovers from prior year appropriations. Horror aficionados know that you only run on fumes for so long before you’re knocking on the door of a secluded old farmhouse. And Governor Cuomo is seeing just how far he can stretch this last tank of gas.

He failed to include refinancing for state superfund in the current year’s budget and DEC administrators and some legislators are growing concerned about its inclusion in the coming year’s budget, which the Governor’s staff is now formulating.

In mitigating hazardous contaminations that threaten host communities, superfund cleanups involve large, long-term contracts with remediation experts that could prove hard to get moving again should they abruptly come to a halt. While the division of budget believes they have multiple years of funding to spend against, others are less sure.

Governor Cuomo should refinance the state superfund program this year to head off any of the uncertainty that may arise and jeopardize important clean ups.

You can go to this DEC Database to learn about the superfund sites in your neighborhood and what evils may be lurking underneath the surface.

Author: Andrew Postiglione