The chemical manufacturer BASF recently reached an agreement with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to dredge contaminated river sediment from the site of its former dye plant in Rensselaer. It’s at the end of a residential street that runs along the river. The company is expected to begin the cleanup at the end of the year, but some residents are concerned.
With the Albany skyline just across the water, the banks on this side of the Hudson host fishing, boating, and even, on occasion, swimming for residents of Riverside Avenue. John Prosalk, a resident of the area for about eight years, says the river is one of the reasons the community is so close-knit.
“The river is part of our life down here. Uh we do, I mean-starting about this time of year we have about nine months where we actually use this as like our front yard. Um, all our neighbors gather we have cookouts, we have drinks; we have fireworks, parties, and things like that. So it’s really part of our culture, the river, in our neighborhood like this," said Prosalk.
On an unusually warm day in March, neighbors had one such gathering, and the conversation turned to the proposed dredging, discussing the potential harm to wildlife living in the river.
Michael Malatesta, who has lived on Riverside Ave. his entire life, welcomes the cleanup, and says the river has seen an improvement since the company’s departure and following land cleanup. According to DEC officials, BASF had 67 spills since 1986 until the factory’s closure 15 years ago, and five that occurred during the demolition of buildings after that. Malatesta says he remembers a time when such spills altered the riverside.
“I used to have birthday parties, but nobody would come, because of all the chemicals in the river killing all the fish. You know how we’re talking about the stripers, and the herring and all coming up? Well they would come up but would die, so the riverbanks would be loaded with dead fish. So nobody would come to my parties, because of the smell of all the dead fish," said Malatesta.
BASF purchased the site in 1978, which once hosted one of the oldest American dye plants, according to BASF’s Site and Community Relations Manager, David P Johnson. The company instigated a cleanup of the land at the former site in 2011 and created a wildlife preserve out of 10 of the 90 acres of the property, according to Johnson.
According to an official Record of Decision made by the DEC and BASF, approximately 38,700 cubic yards of contaminated sediment in the river adjacent to the BASF site will be removed. BASF will cover the estimated $40 million cleanup and supervise it. The contaminants of concern, as identified in the report, include cadmium, benzene, lead, arsenic, copper, mercury, and zinc.
DEC project manager John Strang says the dredged sediments will undergo a process called thermal desorption onsite so that the sediment can be shipped as nonhazardous waste out of the area.
“Some of that sediment, um, they need to decrease the amount of chlorobenzenes, or volatile organics, in that sediment, and one way to do that is to heat it. And using this thermal desorption process they will drive off the volatiles in that sediment, and they’ll capture what they’ll drive off and that will be treated in air. They’ll capture that air and that’ll be probably scrubbed — run through carbon. And that way they’ll be able to ship that sediment off at a much lower disposal price, put it that way," said Strang.
From 2009 to 2014 a remedial investigation was conducted by BASF with the DEC. On February 24 of this year, a public meeting was held to submit a Proposed Remedial Action Plan, Johnson says.
“The DEC comes up with a Proposed Remedial Action Plan, and submits that out to the public, and then the public has an opportunity to comment on that and discuss it, and then from that portion the DEC goes back and comes back with a Record of Decision, and that is when it’s essentially the green light for us to begin the remediation," said Johnson.
The public comment period ended March 11. BASF and the DEC agreed on a Record of Decision on March 29.
Dredging the Hudson River was in fact one of several options. One option proposed capping off the sediment. BASF recommended dredging, but Rensselaer Mayor Dan Dwyer disagreed.
“Well, if they dredge it, how much are they really going to get out of there? Is it going to be 100 percent? No. What happens to it? Is it going to start then dissipating into the rest of the river and floating down, just like the PCBs up with GE? Whereas if they cap it, it’s a permanent cap, I’m almost leaning towards a permanent cap," said Dwyer.
Dwyer’s primary concern is utilizing the area once cleanup has been completed as a site for new businesses.
“The main thing is something that is going to bring jobs and a revenue stream to the city. Especially jobs, we need jobs here," said Dwyer.
The area at the end of Riverside Avenue in Rensselaer is already home to several businesses, such as Albany Molecular Research Institute and the Port of Rensselaer. Prosalk says there is concern that the cleanup will make already existing problems worse.
“We have trucks coming down here servicing AMRI; we have trucks that come down here servicing the Port. They’re supposed to use the Port [sic] Irwin Expressway, but a lot of the time they still use this as a cut-through. Again, it’s a factor of GPS; it says ‘turn right’ [laughs]. Um, so the trucks rattle our windows, they break our windows; they tear out our phone service. So that affects our quality of life, and again, who wants trucks coming down while you’re having a party across the river?” said Prosalk.
Strang has said the trucks will use the Stuart Irwin Expressway, which is an alternate route connecting the main road to the area of facilities at the end of Riverside Avenue.
This area of the Hudson is also part of the river’s estuary, and is host to a variety of migrating species, including the Atlantic sturgeon and striped bass. Johnson says if dredging is to occur, it will be scheduled around the sturgeon’s migration.
“The process will most likely take two seasons, because you have this window where not only it’s warm enough-you know, sometimes the river freezes over, sometimes it’s too cold to be out there. So you go in at a certain part of the year, but also you’ve got this sturgeon run, which you can’t be in the water at all, you can’t affect them," said Johnson.
Strang says DEC would only approve a procedure involving silt curtains in dredging, which curtail sediment from drifting downstream and potentially harming wildlife.
Though concerned about the effects on neighborhood life, residents like Prosalk and Malatesta think dredging will be for the best.
“I’m just really glad that they are finally cleaning it up. Because I know how it was — I know all the dead fish, I know how the mud used to be. You ever see fuel when you spill it on the ground how it makes those colors and all? That’s how it used it all to be. And now it’s not like that anymore. So it makes me glad that they’re finally taking care of it all after all this time," said Malatesta.
WAMC News Intern Rose Schneider is graduating from the University at Albany in May with a degree in journalism.