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‘Worse Than Irene’: The Toxic Aftermath of a Storm in Rensselaer County

Historic flooding created a potential hazard from a nearby superfund site. It could be a sign of things to come.

Taborton Road, in the town of Sand Lake, after the storm.
Courtesy of Rensselaer County
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Historic flooding hit areas of the Hudson Valley this week. The remnants of Hurricane Ida affected the New York City metro and Long Island areas with over eight inches of rain, causing flash floods, power outages, and the closure of state highways and the subway. Governor Kathy Hochul requested a federal emergency declaration for 14 downstate counties following the widespread damage.

In the Hudson Valley, major flooding events can also create potential toxic hazards for ecosystems and residents living near superfund sites. High flow events can cause contaminated soil to migrate.

A few weeks before the last major storm, Henri, hit the region, Rensselaer County was dealing with its own major flooding event—a storm that local officials called “worse than Irene,” the hurricane that came through the area in 2011.

On Wednesday, July 14, a storm hovered over the area for almost two hours, dumping up to five inches of rain in some places, causing the closure of at least 25 roads, and affecting bridges and culverts in Nassau, Averill Park, and West Sand Lake. Floodwaters coming down from Taborton Mountain wiped out roads and parking lots, flooded property, homes, and basements along Route 66, Taborton Road, and Horse Heaven Brook. The waters inundated the parking lot at the Old Daley Inn on Crooked Lake. In Averill Park, cars were in water up to their windows in the parking lot of Homeroom Lofts. At the local high school, floors had to be ripped up due to flooding in parts of two school district buildings, classrooms, and office space. County officials declared a state of emergency.

By the time Henri was making its approach in mid-August, the majority of roads had been repaired by local highway departments. Reconstruction work at Taborton Road continued through August, and a temporary bridge was set in place. While Henri did not add insult to injury as a major flooding event, the county was left with a bigger problem.  

Storm Spreads “Historic” PCB Contamination

On Mead Road in Nassau, Little Thunder Brook—a tributary with high concentrations of PCBs in the sediment emanating from the nearby Dewey Loeffel Landfill superfund site—experienced flooding and shifts in flow, washing away sections of the stream bank with contaminated soil downstream to the Valatie Kill. These tributaries flow into Nassau Lake and eventually the Hudson River.

Contaminants first reached the brook in the 1950s and 60s from the Superfund site, an area that was once a swampy lagoon where more than 46,000 tons of industrial hazardous wastes, carcinogens, and PCBs—twice the volume of Love Canal, the infamous landfill in Niagara Falls—were carelessly dumped by General Electric and other corporations some six decades ago.

The Environmental Protection Agency calls the PCBs found at Little Thunder Brook “historic” in nature: toxic remnants of the original contamination, not new leakage coming from the superfund site just yards away. It has been noted by the United Neighbors Concerned About GE Dewey Loeffel Landfill group that “GE’s refusal to conduct off-site testing back in the ‘80s is why we’re where we are today.”      

The EPA “has never registered a flow event this high in the Valatie Kill,” says Nassau Town Supervisor Dave Fleming. “We had over five inches of rain in about an hour-and-a-half, and those flow rates were higher than Tropical Storm Irene, which really damaged the area significantly.”  

Contaminated sections of the stream bank experienced erosion by the storm and were washed downstream, creating either new contaminated pathways into the woods or continuing a further spread of PCB-laden soil into the Valatie Kill.  

“If we can’t control Little Thunder Brook—which is a 1,900-foot stream that’s ankle deep, dumping contaminants into the Hudson River watershed—then we’re going to completely fail at trying to do anything else at the site,” Fleming says. “When you see it in person, it’s pretty disturbing. At the delta where this tiny brook met the Valatie Kill, the actual outflow has shifted at least 60 feet upstream. The fill that was washed out of Little Thunder Brook is probably three to five feet deep in some areas.”

With a PCB soil cleanup goal of one part per million set by the EPA, sampling turned up elevated levels of PCBs as high as 7,510 ppm in 2017 at an “isolated area” of the lower part of Little Thunder Brook, according to EPA Public Affairs Specialist Larisa Romanowski. In 2018, the EPA began remediating the upper part of the stream, where levels of PCBs “in excess of 1,000 parts per million” were recorded at the discharge point closest to the superfund site, according to EPA Remedial Project Manager Joe Battipaglia. In 2019, EPA sampling confirmed the continuing presence of PCBs at high concentrations in stream banks in the middle portion of the brook. The most extensive contamination was discovered in the upper section closest to the superfund site.

The storm caused erosion to some areas in the upper reaches of the brook, where the recent restoration work was done according to Romanowski. Many of the sampling areas used to guide remediation have been washed away—“feet of soil just gone,” Fleming says. “I think we’re starting over with a more complex site, because now we have contamination that’s possibly extended far beyond the scope of this brook.”

The EPA has been working with contractors from General Electric—historically the main contributor of the toxins—on landscaping, including draping over banks that have been eroded and installing check dams and cobble to slow the flow of the stream, cut down on turbidity, and keep the potentially contaminated sediments from leaving the site. “But the migration of contamination is still going,” Fleming says. “It hasn’t stopped. We really don’t have a handle on the contamination that is leaving the site.”

“The ongoing remedial investigation will need to evaluate how the nature and extent of contamination in Little Thunder Brook has changed following the storm event,” Romanowski says. The EPA plans to continue conducting field work in the fall and throughout 2022. 

Meanwhile, local concerns remain over the condition of bedrock underneath the former dump site, which state officials relied on to contain remaining toxins when a cap and slurry wall were installed during the 1980s. At that time, the installation was approved by the state Department of Environmental Conservation without a landfill liner to slow the leakage of contaminants. EPA guidelines state that certain requirements like liners can be waived if it can be demonstrated that lacking such “will not present an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment.”

Fleming believes that cracks in the bedrock under the site could cause contaminants to spread. “We’ve got a situation where there is tremendously fractured bedrock underneath the landfill,” he says. “The walls are keyed into the bedrock and there’s a big, thick cap on top, but it’s still leaking out of the bottom, which is why we continue to find contamination leaving the site and being pumped back to the water treatment facility.” 

Testing the Drinking Water

Residents in Nassau, north of the village along the Valatie Kill and Nassau Lake, had until July 30 to request EPA water testing due to possible residential contamination of water runoff, pooling, or sediment deposits on their property from the superfund site and Little Thunder Brook. Investigations by EPA are ongoing regarding contamination to the Valatie Kill and Hudson River estuary system. 

Before the storm, some 27 private drinking wells between the superfund site and Nassau Lake were included in a monitoring program for contamination. Contamination levels in four of these wells were found to exceed drinking water standards, and require individual treatment systems to remove contaminants, according to the EPA.

“If you have contaminated water, filters on your well head are not a permanent solution,” Fleming says. “People shouldn’t be living on bottled water for 40 years and think that that’s okay. How are you going to sell your house and think that your family is going to be protected?”

Supervisors Fleming and Dave Harris of Schodack want to create a water district for residents living around Nassau Lake who mostly rely on wells for drinking water. Fleming says the price tag is between $3 and $7 million dollars. “I don’t think the people who have had their properties contaminated should be paying for a water system,” he says. “I think that’s the responsibility of the polluters.”

Funding, Farmers, and Homeowners

This week, Governor Hochul requested physical disaster declarations from the Small Business Administration for Rensselaer, Otsego, and Niagara counties. In Rensselaer County, 18 homes and nine businesses sustained damage totaling $1.9 million, and some 281 homes and 14 businesses had minor damage totaling $2.3 million. 

On the Rensselaer Plateau, it’s rare for the towns of Nassau and Sand Lake to face flooding from storm runoff at the magnitude experienced in July. This is not generally an area where homeowners have flood insurance. If the governor’s declaration is granted for Rensselaer County, it will include the contiguous counties of Albany, Columbia, Greene, Saratoga, and Washington.  

Fleming is concerned for local farmers. “It was already a bad year for hay and our small farms really rely on a local hay crop,” he says. “We had a lot of hay field impacts where water overflowed and knocked down the hay. First cutting was already challenging because it was so wet. A lot of fields have debris in them from the storm, so it’s going to be a long road ahead.”

The summer storm left damage to roads at estimated costs of $3 million dollars according to Rich Crist, the Rensselaer County director of operations. “That doesn’t include what happened at Loeffel, which we believe is a significant loss as well.” 

After the storm, Rensselaer County Executive Steve McLaughlin, Congressman Anthony Delgado, US Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack, and EPA and DEC officials were among those who visited the hardest-hit areas to assess the damage.

Crist says one reason why the Loeffel toxic site is still not cleaned up after 60 years of pollution and a decade on the superfund site list is because of its rural location. “I think there’s a real issue of equality that has to be addressed by the federal government here.” He says the area of Nassau surrounding the site, including the lake properties, “really can’t grow because of this tremendous scar on the town’s present and future,” and that the county views removal of all toxins at the site as necessary. 

“Anything else is having to work around the fact that there are tons of toxic waste buried in a field in Nassau.”