Editors Note: With the authors initiative and subsequently at our request, we embarked on a month-long investigation of the data surrounding the environmental integrity of the Lake Huntington site where the new Sullivan West High School is being constructed.
A graduate of Liberty High School, Steve Fleckenstein possesses a B.S. in Biological Science and a B.A. in Secondary Science Education from Arizona State University and an M.A. in Biology/Aquatic Ecology from Goddard College.
He has been a Biology/Environmental Science Instructor at Sullivan County Community College for 13 years and has served on the Sullivan County Water Quality Coordinating Committee since 1996.
In addition to being on the Technical Advisory Committee for the Delaware Riverkeeper Network (he is a Stream Monitoring Mentor with them), Mr. Fleckenstein is a member of the Empire State Association of Two Year College Biologists.
The authors credentials show his ability to judge the information compiled by the school district and the firms it hired or dealt with to environmentally review the site.
While the facts stand as they are, the opinions expressed within this news analysis are the authors alone. A resident of Liberty, Mr. Fleckenstein has no vested interests in the Sullivan West Central School District other than the fact that his children will be attending the high school once it is open.
Documentation researched and referenced in this article is available to the general public through the school district (482-4610, ext. 258) and the Sullivan County Democrat (887-5200).
By Steve Fleckenstein
LAKE HUNTINGTON August 31, 2001 Over the past few months, Sullivan West School District residents have heard much about the environmental concerns of the new high school site in Lake Huntington.
The new school site, donated by William Boucher, was once part of a property upon which the Green Acres Hotel and New Horizons drug rehabilitation center were located. According to several published documents and environmental reviews, remnants of foundations, swimming pools, concrete slabs, bedposts, appliances, broken bottles, paint cans, 50-gallon drums and much construction and demolition (C&D) debris were found on the Boucher property.
Questions have been asked about the chemical nature of the debris. What did a pile of 25 five-gallon cans contain? Were the shingles made of asbestos?
Since the buildings were constructed long ago, before the toxic nature of materials like asbestos, lead and PCBs was discovered, questions about the chemical nature of the C&D materials are not outlandish. As we all know today, such substances represent an environmental health risk.
And many longtime county residents also know: every resort, boarding house, and farm had its own dump on site.
Questions about the location of old heating fuel storage tanks, potential wetlands, stormwater runoff into Lake Huntington, and soil contamination linger. The Sullivan West school board and Superintendent Michael Johndrow recognized these concerns and ordered an Environmental Site Assessment (ESA) of the new school site. Johndrow has stated that the ESA assessment went beyond the required Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), a document which followed the ESA.
Close examination of these documents have both answered and raised a number of questions.
The ESA was performed to evaluate the existence of potential "environmental conditions" (hazards) as a result of past or present activities on the property. The assessment was based on visual "walk throughs" by a representative of OBrien & Gere Engineers, Inc. and a database search of federal, state, and local environmental agency records.
OBrien & Gere stated that they did not identify potential recognized "environmental conditions" with respect to PCBs (of General Electric Hudson River fame), Underground Storage Tanks (USTs), Aboveground Storage Tanks (ASTs) or any other on-site chemical storage or usage.
Johndrow stated that storage tanks had been removed from the site with the approval of the Department of Environmental Conservation.
However, the ESA did state that environmental conditions do exist concerning stormwater runoff over areas covered with C&D debris, depending on the chemical composition of the C&D debris (shingles, insulation, and textiles). And the ESA recognized that an environmental condition related to asbestos does exist.
As of Aug. 6, Johndrow revealed that he did not know if the chemical composition of these materials was determined but did mention that the 25 five-gallon metal containers had been removed.
On Aug. 13, OBrien & Gere was contacted and asked if the C&D materials or the contents of the five-gallon cans had been tested. Kyle Buelow of OBrien & Gere responded by saying that it would be up to the school district to order such a test. According to Johndrow, this test had not been conducted. Such a determination would not only be important concerning a possible environmental condition on the site but would also have implications concerning the proper handling and disposal of these materials if they were indeed hazardous/toxic substances.
The ESA recommended that the chemical composition of these solid wastes be determined prior to off-site removal to insure proper disposal a recommendation that has not been heeded.
The ESA federal, state, and local database search attempts to identify recorded environmentally sensitive incidents or accidents that may have occurred on or near the school site property. Environmental Data Resources (EDR) Inc. performed the search.
A discomforting disclaimer appears on the very first page stating that EDR makes no representation or warranty regarding the accuracy, reliability, quality, suitability, or completeness of the information contained in the report. Apparently, EDR is legally allowed this very large liability loophole.
The EDR database search found no "mapped sites" of environmentally sensitive incidents (accidents) on the target property (school site) or within the searched standard distances from the site. Search distances for environmental accidents that would include PCBs, Toxic Chemical Release, Petroleum Bulk Storage, NY Spills, and Hazardous Materials extended no further than the "target property" (school site).
However, due to poor address information, "orphan sites" were identified, including the "abandoned hotel" which, according to Johndrow and further ESA description, is the former Green Acres Hotel.
According to DEC record, a fuel tank failure (spill) occurred on Feb. 1, 1990. DEC remarks stated that the tank took on water, and fuel floated out into the lake (Lake Huntington), which is 130 feet from the "abandoned hotel" site.
Categorical comment in the report referring to Spiller Cleanup Date, Investigation Complete, and Corrective Action Plan Submitted were followed by the phrase "not reported." The report states that cleanup ceased on May 14, 1990 and a "Spill Closed Date" of November 13, 1990 was given.
As the ESA states that the site soils have a high corrosion potential, a question arises about any unreported leakage of other tanks on the site that may have been less obvious either during or after the operation of the hotel or the rehabilitation center.
According to the EDR database, three other leaking fuel tank incidents occurred in Lake Huntington in 1994, 95, and 99 one near the firehouse, one near the local telephone station, and one on County Route 116. Neither Johndrow nor Buelow knew the proximity of these spills to the school site, and since they were "orphan sites," they were not mapped.
Concern for potential impacts due to stormwater runoff drainage and related mitigation measures were expressed in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) document. Drainage-related concerns were directed to Joseph Stachokus of Hillier Architects. Due to an increase in impervious areas (parking lots, buildings), a stormwater management plan and an erosion and sedimentation plan is required.
Stachokus elaborated on a drainage plan that will require five fenced detention basins (ponds) allowing excess runoff to gradually leave the site. The fate of such drainage water includes Lake Huntington and Mitchell Pond. The storage capacity of these basins will be approximately 130,000 cubic feet or three acre feet. (One acre feet is commonly explained as the area a body of water would occupy the size of one acre at one foot deep. Estimates at Sullivan West indicate that the basins could be as much as four to six feet deep, depending on the designated surface area.)
Existing designated wetlands on the school property are being preserved. Mitigation requiring the elimination and re-creation of a small portion of wetland has been decided upon under direction of the Army Corps of Engineers and the DEC.
Two existing wells on the old hotel site were going to be utilized as the schools water source. It has since been decided that these wells will not be used, and there is a plan to drill a new well. It is stated that the water from this well will have to meet Dept. of Health standards.
The abovementioned documents, however revealing they were, left much to be answered. Hard data is difficult to find.
The subject of groundwater flow, level, and direction is important. If pollutants reach groundwater, from above or laterally, it is important to know how fast they may travel and in what direction they will move. Although the ESA queries such information, neither specific nor general information or data is provided.
Residents of Sullivan County need not look further than the Village of Liberty and the contamination of the Elm Street well for a worst-case scenario.
Stachokus stated that the school plans to use underground fuel storage tanks, rather than aboveground tanks. Although modern tanks are constructed of a double-walled, non-corrosive plastic material, most spillage today occurs during filling a much more difficult incident to detect with underground storage. A little petroleum product goes a long, long way in soils and in the water table.
Two domestic wells were identified in the ESA within a quarter- to a half-mile of the site. One is up-gradient and the other down-gradient of the site. These wells were listed in the Federal Reporting Data System. It is not clear whether these wells have problems, as the existing data did not provide answers. They are listed along with a well in a southern locale of same distance from the site that had no "major" violations. What were the minor violations? Were the up- and down-gradient wells tested?
The data indicates only flow/production capacity tests have been performed on these wells. Since a fuel spill had occurred on the old hotel site and on three other nearby sites, testing of the water quality of these wells might be prudent, if only to settle a question of future liability directed at the school, should these wells be presently contaminated or have violations.
None of the individuals interviewed knew of the present condition of these wells, and to their knowledge, they had not been tested. USGS (United States Geological Survey) reports did not provide any information either. Both the up- and down-gradient wells are very old (1900 and 1924, respectively).
It was learned from Johndrow that, when the walk-throughs occurred for the ESA, the exact school site boundaries had not been determined. It presently appears that most of the major structures of the old hotel are not on school property. Hence, a lot of the C&D debris may or may not be on the school site. What is where is not clear. If the C&D material on school property does consist of asbestos, shouldnt the soil be tested?
The only soil testing that has been completed did not include chemical tests. As of this date, no subterranean tanks or barrels have been uncovered in excavation or 35 test borings/pits on land that will underlie the proposed building.
Some previously expressed environmental concerns by residents need not be viewed as alarmist. However, if you think that, because you live in Sullivan County and not near a metropolitan area, you can rest easy, think again. The air pollution that causes acid rain is in your very own backyard. So far this summer, we have an average rain pH of 4.5, which is a tenfold increase in the acidity of normal rain (pH 5.5).
Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S. Seventy to 90 percent of all cancers are due to environmental factors. Its in the air you breathe, the food you eat, and the water you drink.
Some added precaution to insure as safe a school environment as possible for our children is worth every penny. To date, the chemical composition or possible contamination of groundwater, adjacent wells, C&D materials, or soils has not been tested for.
Walk-throughs should not represent test data and results. We should assume nothing.