Keep glass half full at tap of civil might

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

— Margaret Mead

Committed citizens never give up.

For the last 15 years, this newspaper, often alone among the media, has written about the buried waste, some of it toxic, left behind at the old Army depot. The project manager from the Army Corps of Engineers had told us in the past that our coverage helped him secure the funds for clean-up, difficult to get since there are many more Army dumps in need of cleanup than there are dollars to do the job.

The real heroes of the story, though, are the citizens who pushed and kept pushing for results.

We thought we could put a period to the end of the sentence after last week’s story on the landfill being capped with $3.3 million in federal funds. It’s important to profile the two citizens who for years served as co-chairmen of the Restoration Advisory Board — Thadeus Ausfeld and Charles Rielly. They stepped up after the original leader, environmentalist Dr. Peter Buttner, suffered a stroke.

Raised in Guilderland, Ausfeld, after he graduated in 1969 from Guilderland High School, served in the Coast Guard where he learned about pollution prevention. He returned home to work for the town at the water treatment plant, and retired 32 years later as chief operator.

In the mid-1970s as an operator trainee, Ausfeld was working on expanding Guilderland’s plant, located in the Northeastern Industrial Park on town-owned land. “We came upon a pit and didn’t have a clue what it was,” he said. The burial area was 10 feet square and 10 feet deep.

Ausfeld contacted the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. “They had a list and knew some of the problems in the industrial park…The town never informed me we had problems with the reservoir or anything in the industrial park,” he recalled.

The land in Guilderland Center now occupied by the industrial park had been set up by the Army in 1941 to be used for storage during World War II. The Army had diverted the Black Creek into two halves, and sent waste into the creek and buried it on site. The Black Creek feeds the Watervliet Reservoir, Guilderland’s main source of drinking water.

The Army relinquished most of the land in 1969. “All of the drainage goes to the Black Creek,” said Ausfeld.

Eventually, the Army Corps of engineers tested to find where waste was buried and labeled nine areas of concern. The $3.3 million cap-and-cover project deals with two of those areas.

“Nothing they do is ever going to be 100 percent,” said Ausfeld. “It’s done with federal tax money. To remove it all and put it someplace else — God only knows where — wasn’t sensible.”

“We pushed awfully hard,” said Ausfeld, and it wasn’t always easy. “I was a thorn in a lot of people’s sides,” he said. He also worried that the several cancers he battled may have been a result of the hazardous wastes.

What kept him at it?

“Just the stubbornness in me,” he said. “I spent the best part of my life working for good water for the town of Guilderland,” said Ausfeld, who is 62.

Now, said Ausfeld, he’s “thrilled” with the capping, noting the Army Corps of Engineers has promised, in writing, to come back if any of the monitoring devices show a problem.

“We will be tied to that site for at least the next five years — it’s in our contract,” said Gregory Goepfert, the project manager. “We usually stay involved with monitoring our sites for 30 years or more.”

Rielly, who, like Ausfeld, has been involved for 14 years, is satisfied, too. A middle-school math teacher, Rielly has lived in Guilderland since 1964 and had served on a town natural resources committee as well as serving as a representative for the Albany Pine Bush Commission.

He and his wife own 125 acres in the Catskills, land they have put under conservation easement, where they have built a log cabin. “I like being out in nature,” said Rielly.

Rielly, too, said it was a long slog to get results on cleaning or containing the hazards left by the Army. “The Army kept terrible records,” he said. “Initially, it seemed like the Army was trying to say there were no problems. We had to keep after them to look at these spots.

“We just wanted to make sure the water was safe,” said Rielly. “If we didn’t keep pushing it, they could keep saying, nothing’s here.”

Rielly said, when Goepfert became the project manager, things progressed. “He was very cooperative, and listened to concerns,” said Reilly. “He was able to get funds.”

Ausfeld concurred. “Mr. Goepfert was persistent,” he said. “I consider him a friend.”

But, it turns out, there is no period to close out this long-running saga; the latest news is well-earned progress, but not a happy ending.

Both Ausfeld and Rielly shared with us more concerns that need addressing. We’re outlining some key problems here as a starting point for long-term solutions.

Both see safe water as essential. Ausfeld would like to see a comprehensive written plan developed for the entire watershed. This would involve a committee drawn from a wide geographic area, including Watervliet, which owns the reservoir; as well as Guilderland, where it’s located; and the municipalities like Altamont and Duanesburg through which the Normanskill, Bozenkill, and Black Creek flow.

Rielly would like to see core samples taken at the delta plain where the Black Creek enters the reservoir. While the Army Corps of Engineers tested other places, he said, they wouldn’t test there, as they didn’t want to be responsible for any pollutants that might be found. “They said, we would have a hard time proving it came from the Army,” said Rielly. “A lot of others pollute.”

Rielly is also concerned about the material that has flowed into the reservoir and settled on its bottom. “Watervliet’s solution is to raise the dam and increase capacity,” said Rielly.

“The city of Watervliet can’t afford it,” said Ausfeld of cleaning the reservoir. “Guilderland doesn’t want to clean someone else’s problem.”

Rielly also recommended that the town of Guilderland buy land, when possible, as a buffer around the reservoir to prevent building and pollutants from such sources as fertilizer. He said New York City has done this successfully with its Catskill reservoirs.

Ausfeld notes that Guilderland’s municipal water has won statewide taste tests over New York City’s even though the city starts with cleaner water. “Swamp water doesn’t make good drinking water,” he said of Guilderland’s situation, but its sophisticated treatment process, which he called one of the best in the state, corrects many problems. He worries that not all of them can be corrected, and believes there may still be areas of concern at the old depot that have not yet been discovered.

Still, Ausfeld trusts the municipal system over any shallow well in sight of the old depot.

Rielly also wants to make sure that, as standards for pollutants change, “we pursue them cleaning up further,” he said of the Army. He gave the example of lead levels deemed safe, which keep “dropping and dropping and dropping.”

It’s currently stipulated, Rielly said, “If the federal government ever says, ‘We want less,’ the Army Corps of Engineers would have to come back, but who will check that and enforce it?”

Rielly stressed, “Someone needs to keep track.”

We believe a regional commission makes sense. The watershed doesn’t follow municipal boundaries, and a shared plan is needed to ensure safe water in the future. Taking core samples from the delta plain is also a worthwhile proposal. The cost would be worth it to either put the matter safely to rest or to document a problem that needs fixing.

The same commission charged with drafting a comprehensive plan for the watershed could also oversee such testing. It should investigate the worth of buying buffer property as well, and, most importantly, should be vigilant about tracking any changed standards for hazardous wastes so that the Army Corps can be called back as needed.

Whether these particular citizens, after years of service, are up for still more remains to be seen. But certainly others, guided by their light, should be willing to bear the torch for a while. We citizens need to keep on pushing if we want to be sure our land and water stay safe.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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