With media attention naturally focused on the huge issues, it is easy to miss the extent to which the Obama administration has changed the function of government in positive directions. On a day like today, it might be instructive to look at one small toxic dump that has been festering for 40 years under six federal administrations - and which now may be on its way to being cleaned up.
Thanks to the appointments Obama has made, like Lisa Jackson at the EPA, and the policies such appointees set, the federal government is now capable of acting on behalf of the ordinary people who live along the banks of Valatie Creek and Lake Nassau in rural upstate New York.
But be warned: what follows is a description of the long and exceptionally tedious process by which generations of GE lawyers have managed to stall and delay cleaning up their mess. And I am sure they have been more than happy to have bored many people into forgetting about little problems like this one. (a mere 46,000 tons of PCB-laden toxic sludge)
The Dewey Loeffel landfill is in the picturesque hills of Rensselaer County, about 30 miles from GE's original plant in Schenectady, and a little farther from Tanglewood and the lovely Berkshire Hills . Back in the early fifties, when factories still dominated areas like upstate New York, General Electric made a practice of dumping its toxic byproducts in the Hudson River and anywhere else they could find. One of those places was 11 hilly acres owned by a farmer named Dewey Loeffel. The trucks first came clanking down the dirt of Mead Road in 1952 and offloading paints, resins, and solvents featuring chemicals Dewey had probably never heard of: polychlorinated biphenyls.
Why should Dewey or anyone else in the area have questioned the goodwill of GE? Since 1878 the company had been a pioneer in the development of electric light, radio and television, home appliances, and all that other stuff no longer made in the USA. Upstate families, like auto workers in Michigan, grew prosperous, and many local retirees still count, with some anxiety in recent years, on GE's dividends.
The dump was closed in 1968 when it dawned on the state that this stuff was bad for people, and for the next 42 years GE dragged its feet about fully cleaning up its mess. There were a lot bigger messes around here than Dewey’s little backyard dump, and GE and the state EPA were busy with all the toxic sludge dumped into the Hudson from GE’s Fort Edward plant. Less than a month ago, the Albany Times Union reported that GE and the state were still clashing over the depth and frequency of the dredging that will be necessary between Fort Edward and Troy.
According to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the quantity of toxic PCBs in the river is almost triple initial estimates because "hot spots" were much deeper than predicted, and were sometimes covered with logging debris from mills upriver. EPA wants to dredge more river bottom more deeply but less often, to capture more PCBs while causing less stirring up. GE has a different view, so the cleanup slows down while the conflicting views are referred to a panel of independent experts.
Meanwhile, poisonous chemicals from Dewey’s site are still at high levels in the waterways of Rensselaer County after decades of legal activity and mountains of paper.
According to the state DEC, GE operators had, by 1974, covered and graded the drum disposal area, oil pit, and lagoon with soil, and constructed drainage channels to control runoff. In 1980, GE entered into an agreement with NYSDEC to perform additional investigation and remediation at the facility.
For all this time, it seems apparent that the company lacked any sense of urgency. It was not until 1980, for example, that a series of tests by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation even determined that the toxic waste was spreading into local waterways and aquifer despite the initial work done on the dump. This discovery resulted in GE removing 500 surface drums and four 30,000 gallon oil storage tanks, and installing a NYSDEC-approved slurry wall, clay cap, and leachate collection system during the years from 1982 to 1984.
Twenty (Yes, twenty!) years later, in 2000 GE spokesperson Joan Gerhardt said that the company would begin to remove the contaminated spill "voluntarily and at its own expense in the spring." (of 2001) Miss Gerhardt observed that this voluntary step would be "a headstart on the cleanup" while the DEC continued to mull over the company's 1998 proposal for a larger cleanup. GE, at that time, was monitoring only 22 wells in the area, even though the water from the landfill flows across two counties on its way into the Hudson at Stockport.
In 2000 it was determined that the sediment in Nassau Lake, which is formed by a dam on Valatie Creek, contains 2.3 ppm of PCBs and that fish in the lake had many times that level, although the water itself had no detectable PCBs. Fishing is still banned in the lake but swimming is supposedly safe and many summer cabins and year-round residences ring the small lake.
Over the next two years, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation held many meetings with local residents and produced two lengthy Record of Decision documents in December 2001 and January 2002. By 2004, GE had removed approximately 15,000 (or the original 46,000) tons of PCB-contaminated soil and sediments from the site drainage-way between the facility and Nassau Lake.
A person might assume in 2004 that the Dewey Loeffel mess was finally being cleaned up, 36 years after it was closed.
The flood of paper continued unabated over the next six years and the Town of Nassau now has on its website thirteen more documents composed from the last two years alone.
You really should listen to the audio of the March 4, 2010 meeting for the latest installment of this sad tale, and because you can hear real people talking to an EPA guy who is maybe a little bit too much of a realist for the taste of those at the VFW hall.
On the audio you'll hear the EPA's Mel Hauptman tell residents that "Everyone should understand that it is a slow process" and "This area is polluted enough it could be still on the list in a hundred years when we are all gone." Using GE-provided graphics, Mr. Hauptman took those present on a tour of the toxic sites reaching from the landfill down Valatie Creek into Nassau Lake. Hauptman said of fish in the lake that "there may be a downward trend but I'm not getting too excited" since the toxicity is still so high that neither humans nor wildlife could safely eat the fish. He tried to be reassuring to the audience about dangers to human life and health from contaminated groundwaters and wells.
Although there was little immediate good news for those at the meeting in the VFW Hall on Lyons Lake Road, Hauptman said that the toxic chemicals were not (yet) spreading further downstream on the Valatie Creek: "The lake is acting like a trap to keep PCBs from proceeding downstream." (Let's hope the dam doesn't break or my backyard will be the next stop for the PCBs)
But finally, under the Obama administration, life has returned to the previously moribund EPA and the Dewey Loeffel site is under consideration for addition to the EPA Superfund. This will, if approved, "allow the EPA to make the responsible parties clean up their contribution to contaminating the site."
Of course, this means that the government will be picking up much of the tab that GE ran up - and it does not mean that Dewey Loeffel will automatically get the help it needs. Much depends on public pressure and local fishermen and hunters do care very much about the issue.
We are currently in a 60-day comment period, which began March 3, in which the public is encouraged to voice their opinions on giving the Dewey Loeffel landfill Superfund status.
For instructions on submitting comments, go to: