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Love Canal Redux? A Toxic Heritage in Nassau

A photo series showcasing the latest efforts to clean up the Dewey Loeffel Landfill superfund site.

From above, the Dewey Loeffel Landfill Superfund Site looks serene.
Barbara Reina
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From above, the Dewey Loeffel Landfill superfund site looks serene: 19 acres of open green grassland, sitting next to a lonely gravel road hemmed in only by fencing. But appearances can deceive. Inside the fence, Danger: Hazardous Waste Area signs rise above grass that has overgrown the manmade hazards buried below ground. A water treatment facility hums away atop a hill at the site. Across the gravel road, Little Thunder Brook wends its way from the site to downstream waterways.

It’s hard to imagine that this site was once a lagoon where more than 46,000 tons of industrial hazardous wastes, carcinogens, and PCBs—twice the volume of Love Canal—were carelessly dumped by GE and other corporations in the 1950s and 60s.  

As a local journalist living only a few minutes from Nassau, I found this surreal combination of quiet beauty above and deadly contamination below to be not only intriguing, but also an important health and environmental concern. My goal in producing, Love Canal X 2…A Landfill Dilemma in Nassau, NY, the first full-length documentary about the Dewey Loeffel site, is to provide an historical record that educates viewers.

Downstream, Nassau Lake is quiet. Once described as an active “Little Lake George” by a local newspaper for its recreation and fishing, contamination from the Dewey Loeffel site changed all that. After years of discharges from the landfill, a consumption advisory for all fish due to PCB contamination from the superfund site to the lake continues to this day. 

In 1999, the town, along with the citizen advisory group UNCAGED (United Neighbors Concerned about General Electric and the Dewey Loeffel Landfill) conducted a health survey among residents in known affected areas. Residents created a pushpin map to document results. In the feedback from 100 responses of rural residents living closest to the site, 76 residents reported having a type of cancer.

In 2014, another chemical—1,4-dioxane, a known carcinogen—was found in a tank sample of contaminated water after treatment at the on-site water treatment facility built the year prior. The facility treats contaminated water from the landfill, then discharges it into the nearby Valatie Kill, sending the treated water downstream.

More than 60 years later, the superfund site is still not the best neighbor as nearby towns continue to feel the financial burden on their land. New York State Assemblyman Jake Ashby proposed a bill to provide state reimbursement of lost tax revenue to residents due to devaluation of land as a result of toxic contamination specific to the site. Last year, the bill never made it to the floor.

In the fall of 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency began removing a hot spot of high levels of PCBs, in excess of 1,000 parts-per-million from a formerly unnamed tributary: Little Thunder Brook, located at the discharge point of the Dewey Loeffel Landfill superfund site. This tributary, once frequented by fishermen, connects to lakes, streams, and creeks leading to the nation’s largest superfund site: the Hudson River. Residents renamed the formerly anonymous Tributary 11A: Little Thunder Brook, a name with historical significance to local uprisings.

And one year ago, a new area along rural Route 203 in town was flagged for contamination. It is said to be the location formerly used as a truck staging in the early days of dumping at the site. 

A Community Advisory Group was formed in 2019 to discuss future plans with the EPA for cleanup. The pandemic has slowed these monthly meetings somewhat, as local residents took time to shelter in place and substitute video conferencing for in-person, on-location meetings. 

Here are a few snapshots of what some lawmakers and local authorities have to say about the current situation and its effects on the Hudson Valley.

The site was naturally a swamp. Between 1952 and 1968, more than 46,000 tons of industrial hazardous wastes, carcinogens, and PCBs were carelessly dumped by several industries, including the General Electric Company (GE), Bendix Corporation, and Schenectady Chemicals, Inc. The waste includes chlorinated solvents, waste oils, PCBs, acids and bases, plus other scrap materials.

“Waste Lagoon to Be Buried; Will Make Final Bid to Erase Pollution Eyesore,” Shirley Armstrong, Times Union, May 21, 1970

Hazardous waste materials were transported in 55-gallon reusable drums, then dumped either into the oil pit or the upper lagoon. Unusable drums were left on the perimeter of the upper lagoon or the drum burial area and later covered with soil. Non-recyclable contents were pumped into the lagoon or onto the ground surface. Waste materials were burned during facility operations. GE later removed 500 surface drums and four 30,000-gallon oil storage tanks at the site. But that didn’t end the problem.

Danger: Hazardous Waste Area signs located inside fencing at the superfund site.

Dewey Loeffel, the original operator of the disposal facility, said in 1970 that after almost 20 years of dumping liquid industrial wastes, the former swamp was now devoid of plant and animal life. It didn’t take long for a list of citizen complaints to pour in: uncontrolled fires at the dump site, downstream fish and cattle deaths caused by toxic poisoning, contamination of groundwater and private drinking wells, and reports of unexplained, often fatal clusters of cancer in residents and some animals both wild and tamed.

In 2011, the Dewey Loeffel Landfill was added to the federal Superfund National Priorities List.

SUNY Albany professor and CAG advisor David Carpenter

“In the Hudson River, General Electric said for years: ‘Don’t do anything, the [PCBs] will just disappear.’ They don’t disappear,” says David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany, and a Community Advisory Group member. “There may be a cycle over thousands of years where they may go away, but not in our lifetime. Even though we haven’t manufactured them in 40 years, they are everywhere.

“The air around a contaminated body of water or a contaminated lake is going to have much higher concentrations than away from a contaminated site. I think inhalation is probably as important as ingestion for people who live near sites with elevated contamination.”

Nassau Lake, downstream from the superfund site

“Around Nassau Lake, a lot of people are on wells and if the PCBs are in the groundwater, you can be drinking low concentrations of PCBs every day,” says Carpenter. “That has not gotten a lot of attention. It deserves to have much more attention.

“You can also absorb PCBs through the skin. They are fat soluble. If you are swimming in Nassau Lake or walking barefoot in the sediments, your body in the water can absorb the PCBs from the water through your skin as well. There’s no level of PCB exposure that we can say, has no adverse health affect.”

Assemblyman Jake Ashby (R-Castleton), Community Advisory Group member

In 2019, Assemblyman Jake Ashby proposed a bill providing state reimbursement for lost tax revenue due to devaluation of land as a result of toxic contamination from the Loeffel site. Last year, Ashby’s bill never made it to the floor.

“Unfortunately, there has not been any further movement on this bill and there likely won’t be this year, as the primary focus has been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the multitude of related issues,” says Ashby. “I am planning to again submit the legislation in the next legislative session.”

Ashby says he won’t give up. “I’m going to continue to push for that and try and get it passed. That’s just a piece of the puzzle. It’s not an entire solution by any means.

“I’ve talked to a lot of families in that area, longstanding families that have had serious health issues that have come up, and there’s no doubt in my mind that the contamination that we’ve found over there has played a role in that.”

A drone shot of the Little Thunder Brook staging area

Pictured here is the staging area set up by the EPA to remediate the upper part of Little Thunder Brook, where levels of PCBs in excess of 1,000 parts-per-million were recorded. These high levels of PCBs in the brook were recorded at the discharge point closest to the superfund site. Phase One, working on this portion of the brook, started in the fall of 2018.

“That work consists of the removal of the impacted soil and sediment in this tributary,” says EPA Remedial Manager Joseph Battipaglia. “That soil and sediment that’s removed is disposed of offsite and then clean backfill is brought in and the tributary is restored similar to the way it was.

“We expect to see some positive benefits downstream by taking this potential source out of the system.”

Contaminated soil removal at Little Thunder Brook

“Phase One of that investigation was completed and the results showed that the highest levels of PCBs were present in this 2,000-foot stretch from the landfill down to the Valatie Kill that is referred to as Little Thunder Brook,” says Battipaglia. “We had levels of PCBs in some places, in excess of over 1,000 parts-per-million. Just to put that in perspective, downstream in the Valatie Kill and Nassau Lake, the highest level we’ve had is around seven ppm. So, really, we had two different stories where the levels were much higher in Little Thunder Brook closest to the landfill.”

The EPA divided the sampling of the brook into upper, middle, and lower sections. To date, the most extensive contamination was discovered in the upper section closest to the superfund site, pictured here. The middle section of the brook has steeper slopes, is more wooded, with steep banks as high as 80 to 100 feet. The lower section flattens out, especially in the last 500 feet. An access road runs parallel to it. The brook flows into the Valatie Kill.

EPA Remedial Project Manager Joe Battipaglia at the superfund site

On Tuesday, September 15, 2020, the EPA gave a slide presentation with the latest update on Little Thunder Brook for a Community Advisory Group meeting via Zoom. Battipaglia said the EPA will collect data this fall from the middle and lower portions of Little Thunder Brook to develop a detailed Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study (RI/FS) plan over the winter for a comprehensive investigative plan for the brook.

A mini excavator will be used to do the sampling of the brook. “Sampling is scheduled to begin in early October to ensure that this phase of the work can be completed before the winter sets in,” says Battipaglia.

“I do expect that the forthcoming RI/FS work plan will focus on the contamination in the bank as well as the interaction with groundwater and the surface water because I feel that, in particular, those two things we know the least about. We know a lot about the sediment and the channel of Little Thunder Brook, whereas the banks are a little more of a mystery.

“By no means is this the end of the sampling in Little Thunder Brook. It’s just the beginning.”

Nassau Town Supervisor Dave Fleming

“This has been going on for decades,” says Nassau Town Supervisor David Fleming. “When you look at the whole site at Loeffel, you’re not talking about maybe 15 acres around the landfill—you’re talking about different impacts through the water table, tributaries, through other soil impacts that are over a thousand acres. It impacts more than just our community. It really impacts the Capital Region as a whole, by putting this horrific, horrific scar on an otherwise absolutely beautiful community.

“They [GE and responsible parties] had the opportunity before the landfill was being capped to provide a complete remediation, removing the toxins from the site. They chose not to do that. Instead, they put a band aid on a bullet wound. They put a great slurry wall all around it with this big huge thick clay cap but they put it over fractured bedrock, so the contaminants are leaking out into the groundwater and have had an opportunity for over 50 years to creep through cracks and bedrock and are coming out at all different levels. This landfill is hemorrhaging.

“The town has been trying for literally decades to get a health study done related to the impacts of the Dewey Loeffel Site and that really has not happened, based on a number of excuses from different agencies. So in the mid- to late 90s, the town went ahead working with UNCAGED (United Neighbors Concerned About GE and the Dewey Loeffel Landfill) to put together a health survey that went out to residents in the affected area. What came about from that pushpin mapping was the fact that there were absolutely clusters of cancer related, we think, directly to Dewey Loeffel Landfill and the contamination.” 

In the 1990s, feedback from 100 responses of rural residents living closest to the site, 76 residents reported having a type of cancer. “It was common to have results [of] neighbors having the same type of cancer, pets who had the same types of cancer as their owners, as well as other types of diseases that were clustered in those areas.”