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Former gas plant site in Sag Harbor has land-use restrictions

A grass area that runs along the length

A grass area that runs along the length of the municipal parking lot at the corner of Long Island Avenue and Bridge Street in Sag Harbor, June 30, 2014. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Land-use restrictions have been placed on sections of a former manufactured-gas plant in Sag Harbor as site owner National Grid goes to court to recoup costs for contamination left at the site more than 100 years ago.

Earlier this year, AECOM, a contractor for National Grid, released a final report detailing completed remediation work at the site. It lists the thousands of tons of soil and millions of gallons of treated water that were removed -- and notes the location and levels of contamination that remain, much of it deep underground.

The report also lists new restrictions on the use of several of the properties, including prohibitions on vegetable gardens, landscaping deeper than 24 inches, the use of local groundwater, and "all future activities" that could disturb the remaining material on much of the land.

"The remedial action resulted in the removal of 90 percent of the shallow contaminated soil" from the surface to 15 feet below, the report says. "Though some deep contaminated soil remains, it is not expected to have any effect."

At the main plant site at 5 Bridge St., "contaminated soil is present at a depth of 10 feet below ground surface to a potential depth of 60 feet below ground surface," the report says, while "residual groundwater above NYSDEC Class GA Groundwater is present throughout the 5 Bridge Street property," now the site of a municipal parking lot.


Trustee surprised

On the streets of Sag Harbor last month, several residents and a village trustee, shown a copy of the report, said it was the first they'd heard of lingering contamination or use restrictions.

"My concern is, you have residents living in an area where they are not supposed to be gardening or farming," said Sag Harbor Village trustee Ken O'Donnell, who owns a restaurant across from the cleanup site. He said he was considering requesting that the village mail the report to affected residents.

Carrie Leopold, co-owner of Dodds & Eder, a furnishings store at 11 Bridge St., a site listed in the report as containing "localized hot spots of surface and subsurface contamination," said she was "not aware of what remains" beneath and around the store, adding, "I'm surprised to hear it."

Joan Freehan, a longtime resident and occupant of a condo complex that has new restrictions in place, said she did not recall being told of any restrictions, and expressed frustration that any contamination was left underground.

"I do think they should have taken it all up," said Freehan, a former village clerk. "I wish they had."


DEC: Residents informed

The state Department of Environmental Conservation, which oversaw the cleanup, said in a statement that residents were told some pollutants would remain in the ground.

"The fact that contamination would remain was clearly discussed with the general public, and all affected property owners have been contacted concerning the restrictions," DEC spokesman Peter Constantakes said.

The final cleanup at Sag Harbor, he said, was "protective of public health and the environment while providing long-term effectiveness and limiting short-term impacts on the community." Constantakes noted the 90-foot depths of some of the contamination left it "beyond the practicable limits of excavation."

Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting, an Ithaca firm that maintains a database of toxic sites statewide, called the report's claim that deep-soil contamination won't have any impact "ludicrous."

"This is a perfect example of how DEC fails to require comprehensive cleanup of known toxic sites with responsible parties," he said. "The disposal of hazardous waste has been confirmed and the presence of such hazardous waste or its components or breakdown products represents a significant threat to public health or the environment."

National Grid spokeswoman Wendy Ladd, asked about the remaining contaminants, responded, "National Grid completed the cleanup of the Sag Harbor MGP under the oversight of the DEC."

Monitoring at the site will continue into the indefinite future, and those expenses are part of KeySpan-National Grid's claim against a company that operated the site more than 100 years ago.

KeySpan's lawsuit, filed June 17 in federal court in for the Eastern District of New York, charges UGI Utilities, a company based in Reading, Pennsylvania, with operating and owning the company that started gas-manufacturing operations at the site.

KeySpan asks that the court find that UGI is liable for the costs to clean up in and around the site, including paying "for all future damages and response costs."

Cleanup at the site reportedly cost $50 million.

The lawsuit charges that UGI operated the gas-making site from 1885 through 1902, and that its corporate predecessors "played a key role" in development and expansion of the process used to make the gas, which preceded the harnessing of natural gas. UGI was formerly known as United Gas Improvement Co. A UGI spokesman wasn't available for comment. National Grid declined to comment.


Gas-making from 1800s

The gas-making process used at the facility was developed by Thaddeus Lowe, a former consultant to President Abraham Lincoln, the suit says. UGI owned the Sag Harbor facility from 1885 to 1902, and continued work there until 1910, the suit says. The Long Island Lighting Co., whose gas operations KeySpan acquired in 1998, acquired the property after a succession of owners.

Coal tar from the gas-manufacturing process left large plumes in and around the site, including such groundwater toxins as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes.

The AECOM report said the remediation removed 505 tons of concrete and debris, 1,589 tons of soil and concrete mixture, and 30,067 tons of nonhazardous soils, most shipped to waste facilities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. More than 15 million gallons of groundwater treated on site was pumped into Sag Harbor Bay.

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