Thursday, October 20, 2016

A 100-gallon oil leak that sprung up from bedrock underneath the environmental cleanup site at the former New York Air Brake plant

WATERTOWN, NY — A consultant working for SPX recently was surprised to discover a 100-gallon oil leak that sprung up from bedrock underneath the environmental cleanup site at the former New York Air Brake plant off Starbuck Avenue.

The subject of the oil leak was brought up by Peter S. Ouderkirk, DEC project manager for the Air Brake plant remediation, during a presentation at Monday night’s City Council meeting.

Mr. Ouderkirk said the hydraulic oil escaped from bedrock following a rainy weekend and seeped up to the surface in a crater crews had dug to remove contaminated soil. The oil spill was discovered almost three weeks ago when workers returned to work after the weekend, Mr. Ouderkirk said.

The oil spill was found on the eastern portion of the Allison Test Room excavation, where some 5,000 cubic yards of sediment and soil have been removed as part of a $1 million remediation at the site of the Watertown Center for Business and Industry.

“Sometimes things pop up,” Mr. Ouderkirk told council members on Monday night. “Sometimes when you’re digging, you find unknowns.”

DEC officials and SPX, the North Carolina company legally responsible for the Air Brake cleanup, will work together to determine its origin and how to clean it up, a DEC spokeswoman wrote in an email on Tuesday.

“There are no immediate threats to public health or the environment from this spill,” the DEC spokeswoman said in the email.

SPX — which owned the Starbuck plant when many of the pollutants were dumped decades ago — reported the oil spill on Sept. 30 to the DEC spill incidents database, according to a document obtained by the Watertown Daily Times. It was unclear how much time had elapsed between the spill discovery and its report to DEC officials.

But representatives from SPX, its consultant and DEC were “mobilized to the site to manage the oil and effectively address the situation,” the DEC spokeswoman wrote.

Started in August, the Allison Test Room project includes excavating some 5,000 cubic yards of petroleum-and-solvent-polluted soil from an area slightly larger than 17,000 square feet, according to a fact sheet released this summer by DEC.

The contaminated soil has been brought a short distance away to behind the current Air Brake plant, where it’s being treated with oxidizing chemicals and aired out to help destroy the contaminants. Once treated, soils that meet state levels will be placed back at the Allison Test Room site. Soil that does not meet the state standards will be disposed of at an approved landfill facility.

Contamination in the Allison Test Room was first observed in 1992 during a cleanup of a hydraulic oil spill at the former Air Brake plant. It was unclear on Tuesday night whether the oil originated from that earlier spill.

Another Air Brake cleanup was just completed at the North Watertown Cemetery, where about 4,500 cubic yards of contaminated soil was removed from a section of Kelsey Creek.

The $1.5 million remediation in the cemetery consisted of extracting remnants of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and cadmium, a poisonous metal.

A meeting scheduled between DEC officials and Cayuga Avenue resident Katie Lane, who has expressed concern that the cemetery project is so close to her home, was postponed from Tuesday until later today.

She asked for the meeting to find out more about the cemetery project.

Some residents believe that the contaminants escaped in the groundwater and spread from the creek and into the neighborhood. Over the years, residents and former neighbors have told stories about family members suffering nerve disorders, cancer and birth defects.

Since 1992, DEC has completed several investigations to determine the extent of contamination and has worked to clean it up. Kelsey Creek was dredged first during the 1990s as part of a major cleanup effort.

In 2008, the DEC conducted “vapor intrusion” tests and found unacceptable levels of trichloroethylene, or TCE, an industrial solvent used at the Air Brake plant decades ago, in four on-site buildings and a house at 431 E. Hoard St., which subsequently was equipped with air-mitigation systems. The monitoring will continue.