GESD’s tannery waste problem

Ambient Environmental Inc. Senior Consultant James Blasting displayed photos of tannery waste discovered in July in test pits on the playing field at Kingsborough Elementary School during a presentation to the Gloversville Enlarged School District Board of Education on Thursday. (The Leader-Herald/Ashley Onyon)

GLOVERSVILLE — The Gloversville Enlarged School District Board of Education on Thursday signaled its support for using the district’s unassigned fund balance this fall to cap the field at Kingsborough Elementary School where tannery waste was discovered in July. The district also plans to work with local officials to pursue state or federal funding to remove and dispose of the waste within the next few years.

The GESD Board of Education heard details Thursday on the soil and air testing conducted by Ambient Environmental Inc. at Kingsborough in July at the district’s direction after recent physical changes to the playing field adjacent to the elementary school saw the surface become uneven and rutted with standing water in places and with the odor of sulfur present.

The district released the findings to the public earlier this month and Ambient Senior Consultant James Blasting provided the board a more detailed presentation on the testing that uncovered tannery waste roughly five to six feet deep in 10 out of 19 test pits that were excavated across the field. Volatile organic compound vapors were detected in the exposed materials.

“There’s strips of leather, it’s different colors — it’s red, white and blue. There’s a white clay material which is caustic material that was used in the processing and there’s a strong odor that is given off when you expose this stuff, it’s hydrogen sulfide and that comes from degrading organic materials, so it’s that rotten egg smell,” Blasting said describing the material.

Blasting said an analysis was performed on soil samples from six of the contaminated test pits that detected concentrations of ethylbenzene, toluene and acetone in some soil samples exceeding the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s standards for unrestricted Soil Cleanup Objectives, meaning contamination is above the level at which the land could be used for any purpose without restrictions, according to DEC.

Additionally, Blasting said that concentrations of certain semi-volatile organic compounds including lead and chromium in some of the analyzed soil samples exceeded the DEC’s unrestricted SCO standards and that concentrations of several VOCs and SVOCs in analyzed water samples from two of the test pits exceeded the DEC’s groundwater standard.

He noted that based on Ambient’s analysis, according to the standards of both the DEC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the materials are classified as non-hazardous. He also said that no PCBs or pesticides were detected in any of the soil samples.

Ambient also performed air testing during the excavation both inside and outside of the school that found VOCs were well below the standards of the state Department of Health and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Following the excavation, each test pit where waste was located was backfilled and then covered with clean soil to limit surface exposure. Blasting said the site does not currently pose any safety risk, but as a precautionary measure access to the field has been limited by a temporary safety fence surrounding the field that is due to be replaced on Wednesday with a post driven fence.

“Typically, what we look at from a risk standpoint is pathways,” Blasting said. “Right now there’s no exposure pathway, because there’s no inhalation pathway, we proved that. There’s no exposure pathway, because the material was covered back up after we were done with our evaluation and also as a precaution access to the area was limited.”

Based on the findings of the testing, Blasting presented the board with two possible response options to address the field long-term.

The first option would be to cap the site by compacting the waste material and then covering it with a geotextile material with a 30-year useful life expectancy that would be covered with two feet of compacted sand material and finished with half a foot of grass seeded topsoil at an estimated cost of $150,000 to $200,000. This option would once again render the surface safe as a playing field, but Blasting said the field would not be suitable for any construction purposes, including as a parking lot.

The second option would be to excavate the site to completely remove all materials and dispose of the waste at a disposal site. The field would then be backfilled with clean soil and the surface would be safe for unrestricted use by the district. This method would cost approximately $2.5 to $4 million.

Blasting noted that in considering response options, Ambient also examined the possibility of the district not taking any action, but said the company did not feel this would be appropriate. This course of non-action was previously taken based on the findings of an environmental study of the site conducted by EDER Associates Consulting Engineers in 1991.

That study concluded that tannery waste had been deposited prior to construction of Kingsborough Elementary School in 1972, but found that the field was safe for use as long as the ground was not disturbed. Blasting noted that the DEC supported the conclusion and based on the findings the state agency removed the school from its list of potential hazardous waste sites.

Ambient contacted the DEC after testing uncovered tannery waste in July and the district’s capital project manager, Bob Grande of Turner Construction, has had further contact with the DEC seeking to have the school returned to the DEC’s list of potential hazardous waste sites that could in the future open paths for the school district to seek state or federal funding to clean up the site.

Grande noted that the process through the DEC can be lengthy due in part to the ranking system that the agency follows that gives priority to sites posing a more immediate risk due to things like the possible contamination of drinking water. Grande also pointed out that if the school district chose to pursue clean up through a capital project it would likely only be eligible for a little over $1 million in funding through the state Education Department.

Based on the possible obstacles to securing funding, GESD Superintendent David Halloran proposed to the school board that the district cap the field this year through the use of unrestricted fund balance and then pursue a full clean-up seeking both capital project funding and state or federal funding.

“I think everybody is in agreement that complete removal is our long-term objective. Knowing that’s several years away, we had a conversation today about the cost and how to pay for the $150,000 to $200,000 fix that theoretically could be done in the next month and a half,” Halloran said. “That field would be usable, serviceable next year with the understanding we still plan to remove everything in a few years.”

Halloran noted that the district was gearing up this year to plan for a future capital project to repair roofs at multiple school buildings, improve traffic patterns at both Gloversville High School and Kingsborough and to make safety improvement to entrance vestibules.

The superintendent suggested including a portion of the clean-up costs in the capital project proposal that will likely be sent to public referendum in May 2020 for possible construction during the 2020-21 or 2021-22 school years.

To cover the remainder of the project cost, Halloran recommended that the district seek funding from the DEC or EPA with assistance offered by the city.

Mayor Vincent DeSantis, who was in attendance, explained that the city could include the school field in the list of projects eyed for the $300,000 Brownfields Assessment Grant the city was awarded by the EPA in June.

The federal grant award will be used to inventory and assess sites across the city for hazardous substances for the preparation of remediation and reuse plans.

“This site could be added to our list of properties that we would like an assessment on and since Ambient has done all of this work it wouldn’t be that much more or we may be able to rely on what they found,” DeSantis said.

Once remediation plans are complete, they must be submitted to both the EPA and DEC for final approval, which once secured, opens identified projects up for grant funding opportunities through state and federal agencies.

DeSantis said the city will sign a contract with the EPA in October to begin the study process that is expected to produce complete remediation plans by summer 2020, potentially leading to funding opportunities for clean-up projects as early as 2021.

“As soon as you have that plan that puts you in a position to apply for major funding for remediation, so I know that there’s hoops to jump through and I know that this is not something that happens right away, but ultimately our goal is complete remediation of the site,” DeSantis said.

The Board of Education members voiced their support for the outlined strategy and Halloran said he would seek approval from the state Department of Education to utilize the district’s unassigned fund balance to cap the field at Kingsborough Elementary School this fall.

By Patricia Older

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