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Revisiting a hazardous waste site 25 years later.


Twenty-five years ago, the Journal of Environmental Health published one of the earliest articles to report illegal disposal of hazardous waste (Harris, Garlock, LeSeur, Mesinger, & Wexler, 1982). Two years earlier (1980), Congress had enacted the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), which established the Superfund program to directly address such problems. Most of the early regulations governing hazardous waste management were promulgated under the authority of the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) at the same time (1980-1982). This period was one of widespread interest in hazardous waste, according to more recent commentators (Hamilton & Viscusi, 2000). Although a few widely reported cases captured most of the nation's attention (e.g., Love Canal in New York, Times Beach in Missouri, Woburn in Massachusetts), numerous communities throughout North America and Europe were dealing with their own circumstances (DiPerna, 1985; Edelstein, 1988; Epstein, Brown, & Pope, 1982).

The case study highlighted in the 1982 May/June issue of the Journal of Environmental Health (JEH) was a classic instance of "midnight dumping" and corporate abandonment leaving an orphaned hazardous waste site for others to deal with. Using general parameters of water quality, the article documented the presence of a downgradient plume of pollution following periods of high precipitation. The article also proposed a methodology for more effective siting of industrial waste sites in the future. The proposed methodology based siting on the "intrinsic suitability" of natural features and suggested specific criteria by which areas for safer disposal of hazardous waste could be identified.

What has happened at this site over the last 25 years? This article follows up the earlier one and addresses the following questions: What remedial actions were taken, and how were these funded? What roles have been played by agencies of the local, state, and federal governments? How has the community responded? How useful is the methodology that was proposed for siting hazardous waste facilities? Was it widely employed and why or why not? What lessons can we learn from a historical review of this case study?


The site is located in an extremely rural area of the St. Lawrence River Valley in northern New York, adjacent to the Canadian border. In 1979, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) issued a permit to Sealand Restoration, Inc. (SRI) to construct and operate the facility. The permit application was based on a consultant's report that concluded, "With the removal of the upper permeable sands and unsuitable materials, and the installation of surface water controls, the site could accept oil spill clean-up debris without significantly impacting the surrounding environment" (Malcolm Pirnie, Inc., 1978). According to the report, the site would consist of a 20,000-gallon tank for temporary storage of oily wastes, agricultural fields where waste would be spread before planting of corn, and a disposal pit excavated to receive drummed waste. Landspreading was to be with biodegradable wastes--that is, "vegetable oil." It was later learned, however, that petroleum-based oils containing low levels of PCBs and heavy metals were landspread instead. Moreover, the oils were applied in such high quantities that runoff entered downgradient wetlands and streams. In addition, a proposed interception ditch was not installed deeply enough to lower the groundwater moving through the disposal pit, and deposited oil spill debris was contaminated with organic solvents. Within a year after operations commenced, local farmers observed oil on the undersides of dairy cattle drinking from streams receiving runoff. Only in this way did residents and town officials learn about the site, since wastes were transported under cover of night and NYSDEC was not required to notify local governments about permit applications at the time. By 1981, NYSDEC had fined SRI for illegal disposal of waste and sought a consent order for cleanup of the improperly constructed disposal pit. According to the 1982 JEH article, SRI subsequently defaulted on the consent order, abandoned the site, and filed for bankruptcy.


When the authors of that article first visited the site in 1980, at the request of adjacent landowners, waste in the disposal pit was clearly polluting the groundwater (see photo above). Small quantities of lead, toluene, xylene, benzene, tetrachlorethylene, and trichloroethane were reported in groundwater samples. SRI had submitted to NYSDEC quarterly reports of groundwater testing, and a detailed analysis of those reports was undertaken for the JEH article. Several indicators of general water quality (i.e., conductivity, total dissolved solids, and total organic carbon) were charted in down-gradient sampling locations and compared with indicators from an upgradient control well. Peak pollution levels appeared to follow a period of high precipitation.


The second half of the 1982 JEH article assessed the suitability of the SRI site for hazardous waste disposal using an approach originally pioneered by Ian McHarg (1967) for a variety of land use applications. The assumption underlying this approach was that one could minimize environmental degradation by selecting optimal physical characteristics for specific land uses (intrinsic suitability). Drawing heavily on prior work by one of the authors (Harris, 1974), as well as work previously published in JEH (Oleckno, 1976), the 1982 JEH article borrowed criteria for siting post-consumer sanitary landfills and adapted them for industrial waste management. Five criteria were established for locating hazardous waste landfills: soil type, average depth to bedrock, average depth to groundwater, proximity to nearest surface water, and characteristic slope (as percentage). Soil series present at the SRI site were then evaluated on the basis of these characteristics. A conservative approach was taken; rather than averaging or weighing the five characteristics, the most limiting variable was taken to represent overall suitability.

Investigations and Remediation

Once SRI abandoned the site, state and local officials took action, but each followed a different path throughout the 1980s. NYSDEC, believing that that area would qualify for remedial funding under its newly established state-level superfund program, set into motion the requisite studies. First, NYSDEC hired a private consulting firm to calculate a hazardous-ranking-system score based on a review of existing data and a site inspection (Engineering-Science, Inc., 1983). Shortly thereafter, the agency issued a request for proposals to undertake a remedial investigation and feasibility study (RI/FS). The purpose of the RI/FS was reportedly to "identify the most cost effective and environmentally sound long-term remediation plan" (Dames & Moore, 1985). The RI/FS was based on an "engineering investigation" consisting of geophysical surveys as well as chemical analyses of groundwater, soils, surface water, and sediment (Dames & Moore, 1986). The final report concluded that off-site disposal was the preferred alternative for remediating the site (Dames & Moore, 1987).

Meanwhile, spearheaded by Mesinger, one of the co-authors of the 1982 JEH article, the St. Lawrence County Environmental Management Council and the St. Lawrence County Planning Office were moving to rectify obvious problems. First, the county lobbied the state legislature and obtained a $100,000 local assistance grant, which was utilized in 1984 to pay for removal of waste-containing drums that had been left leaking on the ground surface when SRI abandoned the site (see photo on page 37). Funds were also available for limited cleanup of subsurface drums and contaminated soil. To perform the actual work, the county contacted Fourth Coast Pollution Control, headquartered in a town adjacent to the one where the site was located. A second local assistance grant in 1987 was used to remove 5,000 gallons of waste oil from the temporary storage tank. This second grant also paid for removal of empty drums and a tanker-trailer that had been left on site by SRI.

The different approaches taken by the state and county governments reflected different priorities. Scientific study was an important priority for NYSDEC and was required as an early step in the remedial process under Title 13 (Inactive Hazardous Waste Sites), Article 27 of New York State law. From the perspective of county officials, confirmed in a recent (April 2006) interview with Mesinger, the priority was gross pollution demanding corrective action as soon as possible. The county obtained a high return on its relatively minor investments. The state made greater expenditures that provided better scientific knowledge of environmental conditions at the site.

By the end of the decade, the state began its remediation, resulting in the removal of 1,445 subsurface drums, 4,762 cubic yards of contaminated soil, and 375,000 gallons of contaminated liquid. The disposal pit was backfilled with clean dirt, and a cement cap was poured to reduce infiltration of precipitation (see photo above). In addition, a standard leachate and monitoring system was installed. These steps were undertaken in 1989 and 1990 at a cost of approximately $14 million. A post-construction report concluded that three of four exposure pathways (i.e., surface soil ingestion, dermal contact, and surface water) had been "eliminated," but that groundwater pollution remained an issue (Velzy/Weston, 1990).

On August 30, 1990, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) promulgated an updated list of new sites for the National Priorities List pursuant to CERCLA, including the SRI site. At this point, official responsibility for remedial oversight shifted from NYSDEC to U.S. EPA, although the state remained an active player in on-site management through agreements with U.S. EPA. Significantly, however, the county role diminished to non-involvement. On the one hand, county officials simply turned their attention to other, more pressing matters. On the other, the authors observed that U.S. EPA limited its interaction with local officials to the legal requirements of public notification. As a consequence, community participation shifted away from formal attention by county agencies to increasingly vocal concerns expressed by nearby residents. The nature and outcome of these concerns will be discussed shortly; first, however, there are a few additional words to be said about investigations and remediation undertaken by U.S. EPA at the site.


By comparison with studies done for NYSDEC in the 1980s, the authors found that research conducted for U.S. EPA in the 1990s produced greater compilations of data and much longer reports. In addition, cost estimates and risk assessments became more sophisticated. A supplemental RI/FS in 1995 included several kinds of human health and ecological risk assessments. One of the human health risk assessments, which was conducted to account for potential carcinogenicity for on-site trespassers as well as off-site neighbors (both adults and children), generated risk values that "fell within acceptable ranges." Similarly, an ecological risk assessment found "no significant environmental hazard" (EBASCO Services, Inc., 1995). Groundwater monitoring, however, detected both a volatile organic chemical (VOC) plume and hot spots of acetone, with levels as high as 2,100,000 [micro]g/L. Consequently, U.S. EPA issued a Record of Decision for the site, pursuant to CERCLA, which recommended extraction and on-site treatment of contaminated groundwater (U.S. EPA, 1995), even though this treatment strategy had come into question as early as 1989, at least with respect to the treatment of solvent plumes (Mackay & Cherry, 1989). Remedial design was not initiated until 1999 (Conestoga-Rovers and Associates, 1999).

At about this time, U.S. EPA was negotiating with five potentially responsible parties (PRPs) to obtain payment for additional remediation. A consent decree formalizing the financial settlement "was entered by the United States District Court, Northern District of New York in February of 1998," but by the time everything was in place for commencing work, the acetone hot spots were no longer detected (U.S. EPA, 2003, p. 5).

A five-year review of the recommendation for extraction and on-site treatment was undertaken in 2003 by U.S. EPA. This review concluded that ongoing natural attenuation "could not restore groundwater to meet groundwater standards within a reasonable time" ... and that low permeability "would necessitate the installation of an inordinate number of extraction wells to capture the plume" (U.S. EPA, 2003, p. 6). Instead, the agency decided to install a 130-foot-long permeable reactive barrier (PRB) 20 feet below the ground surface, downgradient of the capped disposal pit (Conestoga-Rovers and Associates, 2002). Granular activated charcoal in the PRB would capture any VOCs still escaping. In reaching its conclusions, U.S. EPA referred to no fewer than eight documents prepared between 1999 and 2002 by the company contracted for the remedial work--Conestoga-Rovers and Associates.


Excavation of a trench for the PRB was attempted in November of 2003, but high water caused instability in the silty sands. Construction was therefore suspended (see photo above). An alternative approach for placement of the PRB was then suggested by the contractor, according to e-mail correspondence the authors had with the project manager for U.S. EPA in April of 2005. This alternative, biopolymer slurry technology, would hydraulically shore up the trench walls in situ. The project manager stated that, after construction of the PRB, "the effectiveness of the remedy will be evaluated.... If groundwater contaminants are reduced to levels below state groundwater standards, the site will be eligible for site completion and site deletion."

The PRB was finally implemented during the summer of 2005. Groundwater monitoring is presently under way to determine its effectiveness. The local NYSDEC inspector, having direct oversight of on-site construction, expressed reservations when interviewed in March of 2005 about the potential of biopolymer slurry trenching. The authors know that county and town officials, who would have known that regional groundwater is closest to the ground surface in November, were never consulted about recent developments. Also, local environmental consulting firms have not been hired or subcontracted. The project manager for NYSDEC said in an interview conducted during April of 2005 that "they couldn't hire locals because it was highly specialized work."

Community Involvement

The authors of the 1982 JEH article were asked by local residents to look at the site when oily runoff was first observed in adjacent surface waters in 1980. Several meetings of concerned citizens were held in town offices and at homes of neighboring landowners. This early spate of activism quickly subsided after NYSDEC issued its consent order and SRI abandoned the site. People who lived in the vicinity remained interested in the cleanup, but little opposition was expressed because, on the one hand, SRI had abandoned the site, and, on the other hand, the county had moved relatively quickly to address the most glaring problems, with new rounds of remediation every two or three years (1984, 1987, 1989). Moreover, most testing of drinking water in the early years revealed no contaminants that could be attributed to SRI operations. For example, a letter in April of 1980 from the Massena District office of the New York State Department of Health (NYS-DOH) reported that chemical constituents were all below maximum contaminant levels in effect at the time.

A second wave of activism, however, began in the early 1990s. Concerns were triggered by the presence of phthalates and lead in residential wells sampled in 1992 for the supplemental RI/FS. Although the area is sparsely populated (only about 1,000 residents live within a 3-mile radius of the site, according to U.S. EPA records), several dozen residences are located along roads bordering the former facility, some as close as 100 feet from the property line. All of these homes rely on private wells for drinking water. Testing of these wells in 1986 had uncovered some with lead in excess of state guidelines, but retesting in both 1987 and 1990 determined that lead, as well as other chemicals, was within normal ranges. On the basis of the 1992 results, U.S. EPA issued a Unilateral Administrative Order requiring the PRPs to provide alternate water for cooking and drinking. Distribution of bottled water began in 1993 (NYSDOH, 1996).

Although lead in drinking water might originate from on-site sources (plumbing) and phthalates might be introduced during sampling or analysis, the presence of these chemicals renewed community concern about the site. One of the authors (Harris) received numerous phone calls from nearby residents during this period. In the course of these conversations, it became apparent that affected people were reading governmental documents carefully. One preliminary public health assessment had determined that the property was "an indeterminate public health hazard." This report, prepared by NYSDOH under cooperative agreement with the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, further stated that "this site may cause health problems in on-site workers and residents exposed to chemical contaminants" (NYSDOH, 1992). Several families began to catalogue ailments, a list of which was read at public meetings (see below). A link to drinking water seemed obvious to these families, and 20 of them filed a class action lawsuit in the New York State Supreme Court in 1992. No formal health survey has ever been undertaken.

Subsequent rounds of sampling could not confirm the presence of phthalates in drinking water. Elevated levels of lead were uncovered in a few homes again in 1993, but ensuing studies (1994 and 1995) revealed nothing. Because the pattern of lead contamination was sporadic, and because lead was not found at significant levels in on-site groundwater, U.S. EPA decided that elevated lead in drinking water was naturally occurring or came from the plumbing. PRPs were no longer responsible for alternative water supply, and delivery of bottled water ceased in 1995. A year later, in an update of its preliminary health assessment, NYSDOH concluded that the SRI site "poses no apparent public health hazard" (NYSDOH, 1996).

Community concern peaked in early 1997, when neighbors organized their own public meeting. One of the authors (Harris) heard each family speak about health problems: skin rashes, miscarriages, urinary tract infections, nausea and headache, speech impairments, thyroid disorders, and so forth. Farmers also reported illnesses and mortality among livestock. NYSDOH officials attempted to provide assurances about the safety of drinking water, but their participation was received with frustration and anger. The officials acknowledged neither the health issues being expressed nor the anxiety of living in proximity to a hazardous waste site. Residents, for their part, refused to accept the validity of repeated analyses demonstrating that their drinking water could not cause health problems. In the authors' opinion, some simply did not trust the motivations of governmental officials; others questioned the authenticity of data. The meeting received major local press coverage (McCartin, 1997; Robinson, 1997).

One particular round of water testing may have taken some wind out of the sails of community involvement. At the request of the most active neighbors, and under their guidance, an independent investigator from a local university sent samples, properly collected, to a laboratory specializing in citizen concerns. Analyses were paid for by the university under a community service program. None of 55 chemicals were present above detection levels (1 [micro]g/L). After the results were reported, which was at about the same time (1998) that U.S. EPA was proposing to remove and treat contaminated groundwater, community involvement lulled and has since subsided. In 2001, nine years after the lawsuit was initiated, the residents' request for class action status was denied by the presiding judge. As reported in the Watertown Daily Times, "The case was headed for trial when the companies that remained part of the suit offered to settle," and about $320,000 was "shared equally" by the 20 families involved (Guardino, 2001, pp. 28, 30).

Lessons from Investigations, Remediation, and Community Involvement

Groundwater pollution that was first detected at the SRI site 25 years ago remains. It was hoped that a concrete cap would protect underlying groundwater by reducing infiltration after the remediation efforts in 1989-1990. Pollution persisted, however, both in a plume form and in occasional unexplained pulses (hot spots). U.S. EPA now hopes that a PRB will attenuate migration of VOCs in the future. There is no reason to believe that groundwater pollution will be completely eliminated. Some residual contamination will likely remain.

Greater knowledge of groundwater pollution contributes to a better understanding of the situation. For example, in its 2003 five-year review of the SRI site, U.S. EPA noted increasing levels of trichloroethylene and vinyl chloride. This trend was dismissed, however, since both compounds are products of the breakdown of tetrachloroethylene, which had been decreasing. Concentrations of arsenic (33.9 to 51.7 [micro]g/L), which were high relative to the New York State groundwater standard of 25 [micro]g/L, were attributed to dissolution of arsenic that had previously adsorbed onto soil particles. Scientific research enhances understanding, yet pollution remains even as its constituents change. And some things are still unknown, such as why manganese levels are now well above acceptable levels. Concentrations of manganese in the sampling period leading up to the five-year review reached 723 [micro]g/L, compared with a state and federal groundwater standard of 300 [micro]g/L (U.S. EPA, 2003).

With respect to remediation, the amount of cleanup is dependent on the amount of money expended. The largest cleanup was the NYSDEC effort that cost $14 million in 1989-1990. The speed of remediation, however, was a function of agency proximity Local government responded faster than state government; U.S. EPA acted slowest. This pattern would also seem to affect efficiency. County agencies acted quickly and accomplished a great deal in a short time with limited money. The federal government has accomplished little in terms of substantive cleanup since it took over in 1990, despite having secured financial resources through a consent decree with the PRPs.

This case study reveals that the amount of time and money expended on investigation, rather than remediation, has increased over time. There are several possible reasons. First, more study is required as cleanup becomes more difficult over time. Second, higher levels of government require greater justification and documentation for their efforts, especially U.S. EPA, which is shouldered with an evidentiary burden pursuant to CERCLA when it negotiates with PRPs. Third, as knowledge of groundwater pollution grows in sophistication, more study is required for an adequate understanding of the situation. All of these possible reasons are probably pertinent. These observations are not an argument against scientific study. On the contrary, such research is relevant not only for any given site, but also for a general understanding of pollutant behavior, without which, as Jackson puts it, "regulatory protection from hazards cannot occur" (Jackson, 2004, p. 77). Furthermore, government agencies must guard against the prospect of potentially expensive and protracted legal challenges, while industry will insist on cost-effectiveness. Nonetheless, as more money is expended on investigation, less may be available for actual remediation.

When investigation and remediation became more centralized, local participation shifted from proactive to reactive, and then largely to quiescence. The authors know that, in the early years, residents engaged each other and sought professional assistance such as the research reported in the 1982 JEH article. According to Mesinger, county officials responded directly to personal requests. Research was conducted by nearby universities, and actual cleanup was performed by area companies. After the federal government assumed responsibility in 1990, community involvement was no longer proactive. The class-action lawsuit of 1992 is an example of what the authors would call a reactive role. This role was accompanied by less faith in the intentions of government. During discussions with Harris in the early 1990s, residents often attributed U.S. EPA's actions to public insistence rather than proper protocol. From this perspective, the Unilateral Administrative Order producing bottled water resulted from numerous requests by neighboring homeowners. It was not a consequence of the discovery of phthalates and lead in drinking-water samples.

The authors' evidence indicates that in recent years, U.S. EPA limited its involvement with the community to what was mandated by law. Even some of that involvement was poorly done. For example, when the five-year review process was undertaken in 2003, notices were sent to a regional newspaper (The Watertown Daily Times) at the point of both initiation and completion. Town officials, however, place their notices in The Ogdensburg Journal, published in a small city a few miles away According to the town clerk and the town code enforcement officer, who were queried in April of 2006, this second newspaper is more widely read by people in the community. U.S. EPA did not schedule any informational meetings to discuss the five-year review.

It has long been recognized that providing information in the form of legally required notifications is the lowest rung of public participation in planning (Arnstein, 1969; Glass, 1979; Hutcheson, 1984). One consequence of limiting community involvement in this way is a questioning of the integrity of government. During an interview about the SRI site in March of 2005, for example, one neighbor stated: "It's all about a corrupt government." Another result is a feeling of powerlessness. After the out-of-court settlement for the class-action lawsuit was announced in 2001, one person was quoted as saying "I wasn't happy with it at all.... They got away with a very small amount. It's hard to beat power" (Guardino, 2001). When residents attribute their ailments to the SRI site, the route of exposure might be psychosocial in origin. Some studies do suggest that fear of chemical pollution is a stressor that, like other living conditions, can adversely affect health (Gee & Payne-Sturges, 2004).

In the authors' opinion, a certain amount of local knowledge was lost as remediation became more centralized. Some of this knowledge would have proven useful--for instance, in the decision about when to implement the PRB. The contractor for this work was headquartered approximately 300 miles away, in Waterloo, Ontario. The responsible U.S. EPA office was about 350 miles away, in New York City, and the NYSDEC project manager was some 250 miles away, in Albany. NYSDEC did have a local inspector who visited the site frequently during actual construction. From an interview conducted in March of 2005, however, it seemed to the authors that this individual had little input into the design of remediation.

Local officials might also have supplied data about regional environmental conditions. For over a decade, the value of indigenous ecological knowledge has been taken for granted on subjects ranging from conservation of wildlife in Africa (Western, 1997) or the Canadian arctic (Mander, 1991) to the management of fishery stocks off the coast of Maine (Acheson, 2003) or throughout the tropics (The Ecologist, 1993). Community partnerships are being developed in environmental health research, in part to take better advantage of local perspectives (Schell et al., 2005). The authors believe a similar emphasis would benefit future work in hazardous waste remediation.


Contamination remains at the SRI site 25 years after it was first discovered. Geohydrology and groundwater chemistry at the site are better understood today, but problems persist despite significant remedial activities. Cleanup efforts bogged down under the direction of U.S. EPA. If environmental health professionals are to continue making progress on the existing legacy of illegal hazardous waste disposal, this historical analysis suggests that they should engage in the following activities:

1. re-evaluating the proportion of effort and resources that are expended on investigation rather than remediation;

2. relying more on local government, consultants, and construction firms in order to increase the speed and efficiency of remediation, as well as to take better advantage of location-based knowledge; and

3. cultivating more citizen participation, as a matter of both democracy and public health.

What about the second part of the 1982 JEH article? How did "intrinsic suitability" fare as a general approach for siting hazardous waste landfills? Despite early interest demonstrated by many land planners and environmental health professionals, this approach did not fare well. Part of the reason has to do with the legal requirements promulgated pursuant to the RCRA. Specific provisions for hazardous waste treatment, storage, and disposal facilities (Section 3004) were first published in Part 264 of the Code of Federal Regulations in 1980 and more extensively in 1982. Emphasis was placed on synthetic and soil-based liners (Subpart N), as well as leachate detection in downgradient monitoring wells (Subpart F). Initially, facilities could be exempted from Subpart F requirements if either a double composite liner or a leachate collection/removal system was installed. Furthermore, they were exempted from a leachate collection/removal system if "location characteristics can prevent migration" (Greenberg & Anderson, 1984, p. 60). This arrangement would appear to encourage siting based on intrinsic suitability, since appropriate natural features would relieve an operator of the need for leachate collection/removal. The regulatory requirements did not, however, expressly prohibit landfills from being sited near locations where natural features were inappropriate, provided that leachate collection/removal was employed. As a practical matter, this latter approach proved to be easier. Methodologies based on intrinsic suitability, like the one proposed in the 1982 JEH article, did not take into account social factors. Public receptivity became the most critical siting variable, even if some sites are simply tolerated because of acceptable host-benefit packages. Most communities have been and will remain reticent about hazardous waste facilities, in part because of experiences like those associated with the SRI site.

Corresponding Author: Glenn Harris, Professor and Culpepper Teaching Fellow, St. Lawrence University, Environmental Studies Department, Canton, NY 13617. E-mail:


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Glenn Harris, Ph.D.

Leah Nelson
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Title Annotation:FEATURES
Author:Nelson, Leah
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Article Type:Author abstract
Date:May 1, 2007
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