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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 15, 2005

Rousing, persuading, reproving

"Never underestimate the ability of a small group of committed people to change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

— Margaret Mead, American anthropologist

Joan Burns told us this week that she feels optimistic. That is no small thing.

For most of her life, she has lived with fear, or at least with nagging doubt. Toxic waste was buried on her land by the federal government and now, at long last, the federal government is attempting to remove the hazardous materials.

Burns and her late husband, Milton, bought their house with 40 acres on Depot Road in 1963 as the local Army depot was being phased out; they were not told the waste was buried there, Burns said.

The Burnses became suspicious when they noticed oily slicks on their land and large patches where nothing grew. The family and their animals suffered health problems; Milton Burns died of cancer in 1995.

Joan Burns, a soft-spoken nurse, spent decades in contact with various agencies — county, state, and federal — trying to get answers.

The Enterprise has covered Burns’s story for over a decade and has written in this space that the federal government should clean up what it dumped.

What finally turned the tide was pushing by the Restoration Advisory Board, made up mostly of local citizens, which advises the Army Corps of Engineers on the cleanup of the old Army depot. First under the leadership of Peter Buttner and now under the leadership of Charles Rielly and Thadeus Ausfeld, the board insisted on testing that would show if the materials buried in Burns's 40 acres were hazardous.

The tests showed that much of the buried waste was toxic and dangerous. "I was able to justify the removal based on the results," said Gregory Goepfert, the project manager from the Army Corps. He secured $650,000 for the project from woefully limited federal funds meant for cleanups of similar sites all across the country.

During the cleanup that started in September and will shut down this week for the winter, other hazardous wastes, including mercury, were uncovered. So more work remains to be done in the spring.

Ausfeld, who operates the water plant for the town of Guilderland, has long been concerned that the waste on Burns’s property affects the town’s water supply and the groundwater.

"The people who live along [Route] 201 here should be concerned and get involved," Ausfeld told us last year. "The public has to wake up."

Rielly and Ausfeld are looking at the big picture. The breadth of their concerns can be seen in two other front-page stories this week — one on the planned expansion of the Watervliet Reservoir, and the other on dumping in the wetlands at the Northeastern Industrial Park.

The two environmental leaders say their concerns about Watervliet’s plans to expand the reservoir are being ignored. Watervliet owns the reservoir, located in Guilderland, which is the town’s major source of drinking water.

They say the reservoir is already in bad condition and expansion will make problems like silt build-up and vegetative growth worse. They call for a comprehensive look at the whole watershed, which encompasses nine towns in three counties — something this editorial page has long supported.

Ausfeld said of water in the expanded reservoir, "The cost of purifying that water is going to get so expensive, it’ll be ridiculous. One hundred years from now, no one will use it for drinking water."

While Jim Besha, president of the firm in charge of the project, says the review process that precedes the project will answer any concerns, our faith in the process is not so solid.

"It’s got to be a crisis situation before people get upset," said Rielly.

Both sides say data is needed, and we believe that is key. Local citizens on the Restoration Advisory Board believe toxins from the old Army depot, which divided the Black Creek in two to drain its wastes, could have deposited toxic wastes in the reservoir.

They have called for testing to see if that is true. On the Burns property, it was further testing that uncovered the wastes now being removed. It would be wise to test before the reservoir is expanded, possibly stirring now-covered toxins.

Finally, The Enterprise this week is breaking a story on illegal dumping in a wetland at the Northeastern Industrial Park, which occupies most of what was once the Army depot. The industrial park wetland is of particular concern because it is next to the Black Creek, which feeds the reservoir.

Both Goepfert, from the Army Corps, and Rick Georgeson, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, say the Galesi Group which owns the industrial park, is responsible for the cleanup, because the materials were dumped there since the Army left the land.

The problem was noted over six years ago in a letter written by a DEC biologist. After four-and-a-half months of being unable to answer questions about the wetland dump, Georgeson told The Enterprise this week that some materials, plastic debris, have been removed.

Why hasn’t the DEC taken any enforcement actions"

"They’ve been cooperative, so we’ve been holding off," Georgeson said of the Galesi Group. Six years is too long to wait.

Ausfeld would like the Restoration Advisory Board to be able to visit the dump site, but says its members haven’t been allowed on the property.

When The Enterprise started to ask the park’s chief operating officer about Ausfeld’s request, he immediately said his comments were off the record.

Ausfeld and Rielly have a reputation; they have been relentless in their pursuit of answers and action to protect the water and health of everyone in our community.

We see them as modern-day gadflies in the mold of Socrates, who gave that name to himself. He attempted to sting the ancient Athenians out of their lethargy and ignorance. His methods offended some and he was brought to trial on trumped-up charges of introducing new gods and corrupting youth.

His greatest pupil, Plato, recorded in the Apology a speech Socrates gave defending himself: "It is literally true, even if it sounds rather comical, that god has specially appointed me to this city, as though it were a large, thoroughbred horse, which, because of its great size, is inclined to be lazy, and needs the stimulation of some gadfly. It seems to me that god has attached me to this city to perform the office of such a fly, and all day long I never cease to settle here, there, and everywhere, rousing, persuading, reproving, every one of you."

Socrates, of course, was sentenced to death. Gadflies in our times seldom meet with such fate, although they are often swatted at by the officials about whom they buzz. Rousing, persuading, and reproving is a noble, if difficult and unpopular, calling.

Large state and federal bureaucracies, as well as well-protected private companies often need goading. Because of such prodding, Joan Burns may at last have peace of mind, knowing threats to her health have been removed. If we, as citizens, "wake up" and "get involved" as Ausfeld and Rielly have urged, we may well ensure health and peace of mind for future generations.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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