Columbia Memorial Health (1) Careers

EDITORIAL: The threat in our backyard

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SIXTY-ONE YEARS AGO the U.S. detonated the first hydrogen bomb, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” debuted on the radio and the first of an estimated 46,000 tons of highly toxic industrial waste was dumped near the Village of Nassau just north of the Columbia County line.

The Dewey Loeffel Landfill accepted dangerous materials used or produced by large companies, including GE, for 16 years. Their toxic trash contained PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), waste oil and an assortment of cancer-causing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that subsequently leaked into local ground and surface water. One of those bodies of water was the Valatie Kill, which flows southward through Nassau Lake and into Kinderhook Lake.

As a result, the state Department of Health now warns that children under 15 and women under 50 should not eat any fish from the Valatie Kill or Kinderhook Lake. Males over 15 are advised to limit their consumption of fish from those waters. But why would anyone take the chance?

Two years ago the federal government finally agreed to add the Dewey Loeffel site to its Superfund National Priorities List. As a practical matter, that designation certified the landfill as among the most toxic places in the nation. And with Washington involved, the situation has begun to improve, and positive steps were announced in Nassau last week by the federal Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator Judith Enck.

The EPA has already persuaded both GE and SI Group, a successor to one of the original dumpers, to build an on-site water treatment facility intended to decontaminate some of the polluted water that would otherwise seep into the local environment. The companies, which have been paying to pump up and truck thousands of gallons of contaminated water to someone else’s backyard for treatment now plan to clean the water at the site and release it into the local environment once the EPA certifies it as clean. The plant is nearly complete, Ms. Enck said.

The problem with cleansing the water leaking from the landfill is that it’s a solution that treats the symptom, not the cause. The EPA recognizes this, and Ms. Enck was in Nassau to announce an agreement under which the companies will pay $1.5 million to investigate and assess “long-term cleanup options for the landfill and the ground water underlying it.”

In a separate agreement GE will look into what it will take to clean up the Valatie Kill and the lakes and ponds also contaminated by the dumping. The company has undoubtedly developed considerable expertise in such cleanups, as it continues to dredge large stretches of the Hudson River to remove PCBs it dumped there for decades.

All of this is good news except for a missing piece. Residents and local officials are dismayed that there will not be concurrent monitoring of the health of the people who live near the landfill to see whether they have suffered–or eventually will risk–long-term adverse health impacts attributable to exposure to chemicals from the landfill.

Early last month the state Department of Health issued a report, called a health consultation, prepared in conjunction with the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. It concludes that the water around the landfill is safe to drink–some homes have been equipped with filtration systems–because the water meets federal safety standards. It says vapors from the VOCs, which can filter through the soil, are not affecting human health either.

The consultation report points to tests made over the years as well as federal standards to back up its conclusions. And because the water and soil now meet acceptable standards the agencies don’t see why they should conduct expensive, long-term follow-up health monitoring.

But the Dewey Loeffel Landfill is a unique threat to public health in this region. Asked for some similar case that would put this Superfund site in context, an EPA spokesperson couldn’t think of one. The toxic vapors flow uphill not down; the poisoned water follows fissures in bedrock not revealed by surface features. It clouds the future of this region.

The studies announced last week are welcome news if they lead to removal of this manmade threat. But this huge well of 46,000 tons of toxic chemicals could already have jeopardized the health of many individuals. The EPA should require the companies who made this mess to pay for one more study, one designed to monitor the health of the people these companies’ chemicals placed in harm’s way.

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